Shorts: Mideast

Bedouins in Galilee claim Obama as kin

An 8,000-member Bedouin tribe in the Bir al-Maksour village in northern Israel claims it contains blood relatives of President-elect Barack Obama and plans to hold a party next week in his honor.

The tribe believes that Obama’s Kenyan grandmother is the descendant of an African migrant worker, who was employed by a rich Arab sheik in British Mandate Palestine in the 1930s, and a local Bedouin girl.

“We knew about it years ago, but we were afraid to talk about it because we didn’t want to influence the election,” Abdul Rahman Sheik Abdullah, a

53-year-old local council member, told The Times, based in London. Abdullah says he has pictures and documents to back his claim. — jta

U.N. commissioner: End Gaza blockade

Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has called on Israel to end its blockade of Gaza.

“By function of this blockade, 1.5 million Palestinian men, women and children have been forcibly deprived of their most basic human rights for months,” Pillay said in a Nov. 18 statement. “This is in direct contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law. It must end now.”

Pillay called on Israel to facilitate the entrance into Gaza of humanitarian goods, including food, medical supplies and fuel, as well as to allow civilians involved in medical, religious and educational fields to pass through the border crossings.

Israel closed the border crossings this month in response to a barrage of rocket fire from Gaza in violation of a five-month truce that is set to end next month. The barrage came after soldiers entered Gaza to blow up a tunnel that intelligence services said was to be used to kidnap Israeli soldiers. — jta

Israel could begin water rationing

Israel could begin rationing household water usage as early as the spring, Uri Shani, the director of Government Water and Sewage, told the Israeli Cabinet.

He said the last four years of below-average rainfall and predictions for more of the same in the next two years means that cuts in allocations of water for agriculture will not be enough to prevent the nation’s water sources from becoming contaminated, and household water rationing will follow.

“According to the data, there will be a shortage that could disrupt the way of life of the entire country in a few years if we do not deal with it now,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said. The Cabinet voted unanimously to speed up the construction of a desalination plant in Ashdod, and Olmert also instructed the Finance Ministry to investigate ways to purchase more desalinated water. — jta

Netanyahu pledges boost for Palestinians

Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to help the Palestinians “rapidly develop their economy” as soon as he gets into office, if he wins the February elections. “I have a concrete plan to rapidly jump-start the Palestinian economy,” he said.

The Likud Party leader said that while “economic development is not a substitute for political negotiations,” he believes improvement in economic conditions for the Palestinians can create the context for a favorable settlement. — jta

Drop in Christian converts in Israel

A significant decrease was registered this year in the number of Christians who converted to Judaism in Israel. Only 119 Christians chose to become Jewish in 2008, a figure dramatically lower than the annual average in the last 20 years.

According to Immigration Administration statistics, 437 Christians converted in 2003, 884 in 2004, 733 in 2005, 457 in 2006 and 273 in 2007.

Many of those who converted in recent years were non-Jewish new immigrants; it is possible that a change in the general atmosphere in the country has made it easier for this population not to convert.

The data also revealed only 19 Jews converted to Islam in 2008, compared to an average of 40 per year in recent years. —

Israel plans to free 250 Fatah prisoners

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised to free 250 Palestinian prisoners during a Nov. 17 meeting in Jerusalem with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. The prisoner release will take place at the beginning of December to coincide with a Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, and is meant as a goodwill gesture to Abbas.

The prisoners will be affiliated with the more moderate Fatah camp, and will be required to sign an agreement that they will not return to terror, according to reports. — jta

Ex-Israeli army chief joins Likud

Moshe Ya’alon, a former Israeli army chief of general staff, announced Nov. 18 that he is entering politics and joining the Likud Party. He also denied that he demanded the position of defense minister in a potential Likud-led government following the Feb. 10 national elections.

The retired general is currently a senior distinguished fellow at the Shalem Center’s Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem. Two other retired army generals, Yossi Peled and Uzi Dayan, also are running with the Likud. — jta

Russia in market for Israeli drones

The Russian defense ministry said in a statement Nov. 14 that Russia wants to buy unmanned reconnaissance aircraft from Israel, a decision that represents a departure for post-Soviet Russia, which rarely has sought to buy weapons from Israel.

Rather, Russia has provided weapons to many of the countries surrounding Israel, some of which have fallen into the hands of Hezbollah militias in Lebanon.

Russian military officials portrayed the possible weapons deal as a stopgap measure until the country can produce its own unmanned drones in the near future. — jta

Car explosion kills Israeli crime boss

A car driven by a known crime boss exploded in north Tel Aviv, killing driver Yaakov Alperon, who was returning from a court hearing for his son Nov. 17. The Alperon family is reported to be in a feud with the Abergil crime family, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Bystanders at first thought the blast was a terrorist attack. — jta

Wave of attacks on rabbis in Europe

The Israel-based Coordination Forum for Countering Anti-Semitism has expressed its growing concern over a wave of anti-Semitism and attacks against rabbis in Europe. In the past two weeks in Eastern and Western Europe, three rabbis in three different cities were harassed by locals.

The latest incident took place this week in the Czech Republic; three skinheads attacked Rabbi Michael Yeruham, who has been living with his family in Prague for six years, as he was leaving a restaurant, police said. “They called out anti-Semitic insults and pushed me,” Yeruham said. “One of them kicked me.”

One explanation for the increase of events of this nature, the CFCA said, is the global financial crisis, which provides anti-Semites with an excuse to blame Jews.

The first incident took place in Berlin, Germany, when a rabbi and eight students in a minivan were blocked on the road by another car, bombarded with anti-Semitic insults and targeted by a Molotov cocktail which did not explode, police said. The second incident took place in Russia, when an anonymous man attacked the head rabbi of Vladivostok, who was struck on the head and knocked unconscious, police said. —