Mideast Report

JERUSALEM (JPS) — Northern Israeli communities are pressing the government to strengthen the military protection of the region in the event of an Israel Defense Force pullback from southern Lebanon.

The communities, from Nahariya to Kiryat Shmona, organized a strike Monday that shut down municipal services and closed schools, with the exception of kindergartens.

Education Minister Yossi Sarid and Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh later met with the mayors and heads of the 14 municipalities and regional councils.

Sneh outlined the general plans, which the IDF is in the process of formulating, for protecting the towns and villages near the Lebanese border if the IDF withdraws.

These would include broader security fences and electronic surveillance devices, the construction of watch-towers, and even army bases near some of the communities. More bomb shelters and security rooms for schools and other buildings are also planned.

Jordanians expel 4 Hamas leaders

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Jordan has expelled four jailed Hamas leaders and will free another 20 activists from jail.

The Jordanian government said the leaders left the country for Qatar, in a deal brokered by the Persian Gulf emirate.

Jordan said it is cracking down on Hamas, an active opponent of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, because the group could endanger state security. Hamas accused Jordan of acting on behalf of Israel.

Settlers abandon West Bank enclave

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Jewish settlers voluntarily abandoned a West Bank enclave they staked out overnight.

Tuesday's move came after Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh warned they could be evicted forcibly. The settlers had set up tents on a hilltop near the settlement of Tekoa, saying the site was situated within the settlement's master plan.

Last month, Prime Minister Ehud Barak reached a deal with settler leaders to voluntarily dismantle 12 outposts deemed illegal by the government. Two weeks ago, Israeli security forces removed a group of militant settlers from one of those outposts, Maon Farm.

Cabinet member backs legalizing PLO

JERUSALEM (JTA) — An Israeli cabinet minister is supporting legislation by an Arab Knesset member to remove the PLO and Fatah from a list of terrorist organizations.

Cabinet minister Haim Ramon said it is illogical for the group to continue to be included on the list in light of the Oslo accords and the fact that Israel does not treat the PLO as a terrorist group.

Conversion scandal involves bribe-taking

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Two senior rabbinical court officials in Israel were arrested on suspicion of receiving bribes in exchange for issuing conversion certificates.

The police investigation was launched in response to a complaint filed by the national director of the rabbinical courts, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported.

The complaint was based on protests lodged by four women, who said they had been asked to pay sums ranging from $600 to $10,000 for the certificates. The two officials were released from detention after complaining of illness.

15 Palestinians hurt in Ramallah clashes

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Fifteen Palestinians demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails were injured in clashes with Israeli soldiers near the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Saturday's violence occurred after Israeli troops fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse Palestinian demonstrators who hurled stones at soldiers and burned tires.

Budget bill drops Jerusalem as capital

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Language intended to have the United States recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital was dropped from legislation included in the final budget bill passed by the House of Representatives last week.

The provision would have instructed the American consulate in Jerusalem to report directly to the U.S. ambassador rather than the State Department and required the State Department to change its documents, including passports, to refer to Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

The $390 billion budget bill includes nearly $3 billion in annual aid to Israel and nearly $2 billion for Israel and the Palestinians to help implement last year's Wye agreement.

The deal, which must now be approved by the Senate, did not include tougher hate-crimes legislation that Jewish groups support.

Visit to death camp or time for strippers?

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli high school students ended a recent pilgrimage to former Nazi death camps in Poland by bringing strippers to their hotel rooms for a late-night show, the school's principal said.

"There was a male stripper and a female stripper," Rachela Yoktan, principal of Ofek High School, told Israel Radio last week.

Yoktan said the incident took place earlier this month, behind the back of a teacher chaperoning the group of 70 students. "They found cards in the hotel listing all kinds of services that guests could order," Yoktan added.