Mideast shorts

Israel drops in press freedom ranking

A freedom-of-the-press watchdog cited the Sheldon Adelson-owned daily newspaper Israel Hayom in downgrading Israel’s status from “free” to “partly free.”

“Israel declined due to the growing impact of Israel Hayom, whose owner-subsidized business model endangered the stability of other media outlets, and the unchecked expansion of paid content — some of it government funded — whose nature was not clearly identified to the public” in major media outlets, including the popular Ynet news site, said the report published April 27 by Freedom House.

The 2016 report on 195 countries gave Israel a score of 32 on press freedom, directly behind Italy, which was also termed “partly free,” as are all countries with a score worse than 30. The United States was ranked “free” with a score of 21. Countries were ranked from 0 (best) to 100 (worst).

Turkey, where journalists are routinely jailed and occasionally tortured for publishing content deemed insulting to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, maintained its “not free” status and was downgraded to 71.

The report listed 86 countries as free, 59 as partly free and 50 as not free in press coverage.

In its 2015 report on Israel, Freedom House said “Israel Hayom is owned and subsidized by Sheldon Adelson, a wealthy American businessman who is openly aligned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative Likud Party.” Israeli critics say the newspaper is pro-government.

Israel’s downgrade is biased and “incomprehensible,” columnist Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post wrote on April 26 in an article titled “Freedom House Drinks Anti-Israel Kool-Aid.”

The story quotes Robert Ruby, director of communications for Freedom House, as explaining that the first factor behind the downgrade is the “economic influence of Israel Hayom, which is distributed free of charge” and “has affected the economic model and stability of other publications.” The second factor at play, he said, is “the dramatic growth of paid government advertising unlabeled as such, appearing to be news content.”

Ruby added that Israel, “like some other democracies, has hovered on the line between ‘free’ and ‘partly free’ for several years.”

Asked whether Israel’s rating would improve if it banned Israel Hayom, Ruby answered this would be “a serious infringement of press freedom.”

Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser under George W. Bush, told Rubin: “Israel Hayom was founded in 2007 to provide Israelis an alternative to the left-leaning press. It has become the widest circulation newspaper in the country, not just because it is free but because so many Israelis want an alternative view.

“To say that Israel is suddenly only ‘partly free’ because it now has a popular center-right newspaper is malicious and ignorant.”

Ruby denied allegations of bias against Israel by Freedom House.

The report also notes that media outlets in Israel “are subject to military censorship and gag orders, and journalists often face travel restrictions.”

Freedom House’s website says its “primary funding comes from USAID and the U.S. State Department, as well as from other democratic governments — Canada, the EU, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.” — jta


Zionist Union chief defends statement over party’s image as ‘Arab lovers’

Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog defended his statement that his Zionist Union party must stop giving off the impression of being “Arab lovers” in order to attract more votes.

On April 20, the day after he made the remark to party activists in Ashkelon, Herzog posted on Twitter: “I’ve heard there are some who are not satisfied with my Zionist approach. If they want the chairman of the Zionist Union to give preference to Palestinian interests, I have a message for them: They should recalculate their route,” an expression from the GPS service Waze.

Herzog had been discussing the need for the party to change in response to changes in Israeli society. He was slammed by members of his own party and other lawmakers.

Shelly Yachimovich, whom Herzog defeated to lead the Labor Party, which with the smaller Hatnua party makes up the Zionist Union, tweeted: “Is this the proper response by the head of the opposition to demonstrations by the extreme right?”

Yachimovich later tweeted a photo of the section of Israel’s Declaration of Independence dealing with equal rights for all citizens, regardless of religion, race or gender.

Knesset lawmaker Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint List, called on Herzog to resign as head of the opposition.

“Herzog is neither relevant nor a leader, and should have resigned as the head of the opposition a long time ago,” Odeh said in a statement. “Herzog has turned himself into a cheap and pale impersonation of Netanyahu. Specifically during these hard days, we need to present a real and bold alternative to Netanyahu and the right’s rule of hate.”

Naftali Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party, which belongs to the Netanyahu government, also tweeted an angry response.

“The Arabs of Israel constitute about 20 percent of the population. They are not ‘droves’ and don’t hate us,” Bennett wrote. “They are citizens with equal rights and I am their education minister, and I am sick of repeating this.” — jta


Two Jewish visitors beaten, ejected from Temple Mount for praying illegally

Muslim worshippers attacked two Jewish men on the Temple Mount on April 26 after the Jews bowed in prayer in violation of the rules for Jewish visitors.

The Jewish men were beaten as they prostrated themselves. The Muslims clashed with police attempting to protect the Jewish visitors, who were ejected from the site.

Jewish prayer is forbidden at the site, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims. The Temple Mount is administered by Jordan’s Muslim Wakf.

At least eight Jewish visitors were removed from the Temple Mount April 25 for allegedly attempting to pray. Jewish visitors were removed the previous two days for the same offense.

Jordan condemned the increase in Jewish visitors to the site, including many tourists who came to Israel for Passover. During the holiday’s intermediate days, there are expanded visiting hours for Jews at the Temple Mount and Muslim worshippers are prevented from ascending to the mount during certain visiting hours.

Additional security forces have been put on patrol in the Old City of Jerusalem because of increased tensions at the Temple Mount and throughout the city in the aftermath of a bus bombing in Jerusalem last week. — jta


Palestinians arrested for plan to carry out Passover attack

Three West Bank Palestinians, including two teenagers, were arrested for allegedly planning to carry out a Passover terror attack on Israelis.

The three suspects from the Nablus area in the West Bank were arrested by the Shin Bet security service at an apartment in eastern Jerusalem on April 25, Ynet reported. None of the suspects — ages 15, 16 and 23 — had a known association with a terror organization.

During questioning by the Shin Bet, they reportedly admitted to the plan, according to Ynet, which cited unnamed Israeli security officials.

The three allegedly planned the attack for a crowded area with a bomb and a gun. During Passover week, many Israelis have off from work and children are out of school. — jta


Jewish members of alleged terror cell indicted in Israel

Seven members of an alleged Jewish terror cell were indicted April 25 in an Israeli court.

An Israeli soldier and two minors were among those charged in Petah Tikva District Court with setting Palestinian vehicles on fire, throwing firebombs at Palestinian homes and assaulting Palestinians in the West Bank, near Ramallah. The cell members also are accused of belonging to an illegal organization and causing grave bodily harm.

The accused terrorists were arrested earlier this month in a joint operation of the Shin Bet security services and the Israel Police.

The Shin Bet described the cell as “extreme and violent” and said it “systematically harmed Palestinians and their property, with full knowledge that human lives could be harmed, even after the result of the arson attack on a home in Duma.”

The July 2015 firebombing of a Palestinian home in that West Bank village killed a Palestinian baby and his parents, and seriously wounded his brother. The Shin Bet said the attack was an “inspiration” to the suspects. — jta


Thousands hear priestly blessing at Western Wall

Tens of thousands of Jewish worshippers gathered April 25 at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for the traditional priestly blessing.

The crowd, estimated at 50,000, converged on the Old City for the blessing, called Birkat Kohanim in Hebrew, during the second intermediate day of Passover. The mass blessing also is held on Sukkot and Shavuot, the other Jewish pilgrimage festivals, when in ancient times Jews would travel to the Holy Temple.

Hundreds of kohanim, members of the priestly class, raised their hands and blessed the worshippers, including many visitors from the diaspora. The crowd also recited the prayers for the State of Israel, the safety of Israeli soldiers and for Israeli police officers.

Additional security forces protected the worshippers due to increased tensions at the Temple Mount, located above the Western Wall, and throughout the city.

“The pilgrimage to Jerusalem is an impressive testament to the Jewish People’s attachment to the remnant of our Temple; when the masses of Israel come to touch its stones,” Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, the rabbi of the Western Wall, said in a statement. “This joyous sight of the masses of Israel completely filling the streets is somehow reminiscent of ancient times when crowds of pilgrims would come to see and be seen. More than a commemoration of the Temple’s destruction, it is a commemoration of the Temple itself.”

The chief rabbis of Israel, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and Rabbi David Lau, as well as Rabinovich, greeted the visitors after the services.

On April 24, the Women of the Wall group held Passover holiday prayers at the Western Wall, but did not hold a priestly blessing ceremony after being banned by Israel’s attorney general, who ruled that holding a female version of the ceremony violated a law enforcing “local customs” at religious sites in Israel. — jta


Iran’s FM: Nuclear deal could falter

Iran’s foreign minister said the Iran nuclear deal could falter and vowed to recover whatever litigants seize in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing access to frozen Iranian funds.

Javad Zarif in an April 25 interview with the New Yorker also likened Holocaust deniers in Iran to the Ku Klux Klan.

Asked about a periodic Holocaust cartoon festival held in Iran,  Zarif replied that it’s run by an NGO unaffiliated with the government. Pressed on why Iran permits it, he replied, “Why does the United States have the Ku Klux Klan?”

Speaking of the nuclear pact, Zarif said: “If one side does not comply with the agreement, [it] will falter.” — jta