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650,000 People Flood Israel's Nature Reserves During Pesach

By Ha'aretz

Some 650,000 people spent the Pesach holiday Tuesday in nature reserves around the country administered by the Jewish National Fund, according to Army Radio.

The most popular sites frequented were Eilat, the Hula Valley in the north, the Ben Shemen forest and Ayalon Park in central Israel and Hamalakhim Forest in the southern region. An expected 200,000 Israelis will travel overseas during Pesach. The most popular destinations are Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Istanbul, despite safety warnings regarding these two locations issued by the Foreign Ministry

Palestinians in Gaza Give Mixed Reaction to Sharon's Withdrawal Plan

By Sonja Pace (VOA-Gaza City)

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Tuesday that he wants Israel to pull out of the Gaza Strip and some parts of the West Bank as part of a unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians. Sharon is seeking support for the plan within his own party and coalition government and is to present his ideas next week to President Bush during a visit to Washington.

It is business as usual in downtown Gaza City - Palestinian policemen directing traffic, children going to school, people out shopping. But, just a short drive away, things are very different. Roads have been blocked off with concrete barriers and razor wire, farms have been turned into a barren no-man's land with houses demolished and trees uprooted. And, there are the tall, lone watchtowers. This is the typical scene around the Jewish settlements that dot the landscape in several parts of the Gaza Strip.

These are often the flashpoints in the ongoing conflict. Palestinian militants try to infiltrate and attack the settlements. Israeli soldiers stationed there to guard them, shoot at anyone approaching, and often move out to track down suspected militants and weapons caches.

Now Ariel Sharon is calling for the removal of these settlements and the soldiers. It would be hard to find a Palestinian who would not welcome an Israeli pullout. Shopkeeper Bassam Diazada said it was a positive sign.

"This is what we are fighting for, what the resistance is for," he said. "We want them to pull out from our territories. We have enough time, we are patient enough, and we are fighting for the real purpose that we want our state. Now, step by step we will get what we are looking for." Diazada said he believes Sharon wants to pull out because of pressure from frequent attacks by Palestinian militants.

Militant groups such as Hamas have been in the forefront of staging those attacks. Hamas supporter Ghazi Hamad does not agree with Diazada's optimism that a Palestinian state is on the way. He does believe that an Israeli pullout would be a victory for the militants.

"I think Sharon will go out from Gaza," he said. "He feels like Gaza turned into a burden on his shoulder. He wants to minimize the security cost and also he wants to concentrate his forces and his security in the West Bank. I think the Palestinians look at this as a fruit of resistance and our struggle against occupation, against settlers here. So, we feel in general it's a kind of victory."

But, Hamad is suspicious of Israeli motives. He believes Sharon wants to deal separately with the two blocks of land, Gaza and the West Bank. He believes the prime minister is telling Palestinians - you have Gaza, forget about the West Bank. That, he says, will not work.

Sharon has repeatedly said he is proposing unilateral action because peace talks with the Palestinians have gone nowhere and because the Palestinian leadership appears unwilling or unable to rein in the militants as a first step toward resuming negotiations.

In interviews published in Israeli media this week, Sharon said the pullout from Gaza would be good for Israel and he said he has agreed to give up a few settlements in the West Bank to satisfy the U.S. administration and leave open the door to possible future Israeli withdrawals. But, said Sharon, the withdrawal plan could delay Palestinian aspirations for an independent state for years to come.

That is exactly what Imad Falouji fears. He is a member of the Palestinian legislature and an adviser to Yasir Arafat. Falouji said, "If Sharon wants to leave Gaza, it's OK. We are very happy to see our land without Israel's occupation. But, the question is, what's the price Sharon wants if he leaves Gaza. If the price is to keep silent about what happens in the West Bank, to build settlements there. If Sharon thinks in terms of this price it's impossible to see any Palestinian agreeing to this price. All the Palestinians agree to make peace with Israel if Israel respects the minimum of our rights. This minimum means Gaza, West Bank, East Jerusalem."

Palestinian economist Khaled Abdulshafi said an Israeli withdrawal could have some immediate positive economic consequences. But he warned the political impact would be damaging to the Palestinians and a setback to the internationally sanctioned road map peace plan, which stipulates a negotiated settlement and the creation of a viable, Palestinian state.

"Politically, it is a very dangerous plan because the Gaza pullout will be at the cost of the West Bank," Abdulshafi said. "If we look at the possibility of having a future viable Palestinian state, this is a setback. Sharon is intending to keep the settlements in the West Bank. So, from that point of view it's a negative development for sure and it is a setback in terms of the road map also. So, I believe the Palestinians should reject that plan at the political level. However, if Sharon decides to get out of Gaza it could be a positive development in terms of living conditions in the Gaza Strip because the pullback would release resources that were held by the Israelis in terms of land, water, and the movement restrictions within the Gaza Strip are going to be lifted. So, definitely, this will have a positive impact on the Gaza economy, in a way."

Abdulshafi warned that improved economic conditions would not end or even diminish the conflict. There is general agreement among Palestinians here that a viable Palestinian state is the prerequisite for an end to the war with Israel, but for now most of them don't see that happening.

Group: Firebombing Attack on Montreal Jewish School Avenges Yassin Killing

By Ha'aretz Service, News, Canadian Jewish News

A Monday morning firebombing attack on a Montreal Jewish day school, the St. Laurent branch of United Talmud Torahs, was, according to a letter found at the scene, carried out to avenge Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Quebec's French-language TVA television network reported that the letter denounced recent Israeli attacks against Palestinians, including Yassin's killing.

The letter noted the arsonists intended the 2:15 a.m. attack was intended as a warning and did not intend to harm people, Montreal media outlets reported. But this is just the beginning, the letter warned, adding that if Israel continues its "crimes" in the Middle East those then those responsible for the Montreal attack will carry out further operations.

CTV News quoted a portion of the letter Monday: "Our goal was only to sound the alarm without causing deaths But this is just a beginning. If your crimes continue in the Middle East, our attacks will continue." There were no casualties in the arson but the blaze destroyed books and damaged a computer system. Montréal police found anti-Semitic notes taped to the school's walls.

Montreal's Jewish community is both fearful and enraged, after an attack on the school. Rabbi Reuben Poupko, the co-chairman of the Jewish community security co-ordinating committee, urged the community not to alter its normal activities in the wake of a firebombing that seriously damaged a Jewish school "We intend not to grant these criminals a victory by amending the way we live because of this act. We will continue to congregate in our synagogues and educate our children in Jewish schools. We will determine how we live, not them."

Last month, B'nai Brith Canada reported an increase in anti-Semitic incidents across the country in 2003, saying there were almost 600 cases of violence, harassment and vandalism against Jews and over 100 such incidents in Quebec alone.

In a separate incident, a 46-year-old man was arrested after a Star of David, an equal sign and a swastika were sprayed on construction boarding in west-end Toronto. Last week, the city held a massive rally in which politicians and community and Jewish leaders vowed to stamp out racism.

Angry Judge Torpedoes Fee Request in Holocaust Case

By New York Law Journal

A federal judge has rejected a request for attorney fees in the $1.3 billion Swiss settlement of Holocaust claims, saying the lawyer and his client contributed nothing to the case and had essentially tried to blackmail the court. The attorney, Samuel J. Dubbin of Miami, originally asked for $3.6 million in fees for his work and another $2.3 million for research done by his client, Thomas Weiss, a founding member of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation-USA.

Dubbin, of Dubbin & Kravetz, later reduced his request to $550,000 and then $300,000. Weiss withdrew his entire fee request in a letter to New York Chief Judge Edward R. Korman late last month. By withdrawing his fee request, Korman said Weiss had come to recognize that his research into the Swiss banking industry's ties to the Holocaust had no impact on the Swiss settlement. "Mr. Dubbin," Korman wrote in In Re: Holocaust Victim Assets Litigation, CV-96-4849, "has not."

The judge also accused Dubbin and Weiss of trying to play "hold-up" by threatening to appeal the amended settlement unless the court approved attorney fees and money to fund Weiss' private Holocaust research. "This was beyond the pale," Korman wrote. "I was not going to be blackmailed, particularly with funds that belong to Holocaust survivors."

Weiss' survivors group has criticized the Swiss settlement as unduly favoring Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet Union, who will receive 75 percent of the money. Korman last month rejected criticisms of the distribution, saying the disparity was justified because of the extreme poverty of the Soviet Union survivors.

Attorney fees for the Swiss settlement that have been approved since 2000 have been low compared to those normally generated by cases of this size. Around $5.3 million in fees have been approved, amounting to .4 percent of the settlement. Four of the 10 attorneys on the case's executive committee worked pro bono or have donated their fees to charity.

Rabbis Tell Woman Married in U.S.: Choose Divorce or Jail

By Ha'aretz

In a precedent-setting decision Sunday, the Rabbinic High Court ruled a woman must go to jail for refusing to accept a divorce from her husband. The President of the High Court, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, has the option of altering the ruling. However, if he does not do so, and if the Supreme Court does not intervene in the decision, the woman will be faced with the choice of accepting the divorce or going to prison.

The names of the couple in question are under a gag order, but one detail that has been released is that they are not Israeli citizens. He is an American citizen, and she is Belgian. They were wed in a religious ceremony in the United States.

The dayanim (rabbinic judges) wrote in their ruling that they were guided by the principle of equality between the sexes. "We did a great deal for the freeing of women from their agunut [women who cannot divorce because their husbands refuse or can't be located]," explained the chief judge, Rabbi Shlomo Dichovsky. "However to the same degree we must remember that a man also has human rights, and he is also entitled to liberty from his wife, who must grant him a divorce."

However, legal experts on the subject argue that the rabbinical court is keen to show its dedication to equality only when it is a matter of defending the rights of men. According to Jewish law, there is no equality among the sexes in matters having to do with divorce. While the agreement of a woman to accept a divorce is no less a prerequisite than it is for the husband to grant it, when a woman refuses to grant a divorce, the court may grant the husband the right to marry a second wife. This is not an option open to a woman whose husband refuses to grant a divorce.

The matter reached the courts in Israel when the wife filed a property claim against the husband in family court. The husband, a lawyer by profession, is wealthy, and his wife sued him for $10 million.

In July 2002 the rabbinical court ordered the woman to accept the divorce, but she refused. The dayanim justified their unprecedented decision to jail her by pointing to the woman's behavior, which they said indicated she wanted to blackmail her husband, using her power not to agree to the divorce as a means to extort money.

Ancient Jewish Man's Remains Give Clues on Crucifixion

By Reuters

The graphic portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus in Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" has brought the ancient world's execution method of choice in all its horror to the big screen. Jesus is the best-known victim of crucifixion. But the Romans, trying to quash Jewish rebellions in the Holy Land in the first century, put thousands of other Jews to death on the cross.

Yet, strangely, the remains of only one victim have ever been found. He was Yehohanan Ben Hagkol, a Jewish man whose heel bone, excavated by archaeologists near Jerusalem in 1968, still had a nail embedded in it. "It is the only case ever found in the world where there is indisputable evidence of crucifixion," said Joe Zias, a physical anthropologist who examined the remains of Yehohanan Ben Hagkol.

"We've looked at thousands of skeletons in Jerusalem. Some were decapitated. Others were mutilated. But we've never found another one that was crucified. It has to be one of the most obscene forms of death ever invented by man," said Zias of the execution method practiced between 400 BCE and CE 400 also by the Persians, Greeks, Assyrians, Carthaginians and other ancient civilizations.

Prof. Martin Hengel, a leading scholar of crucifixions from Tubingen University in Germany, said the Romans around Jerusalem crucified thousands of captured Jewish rebels during the first century, when Jesus lived. Crosses dotted the landscape around the city. Zias said that between CE 66 and 702, the Romans at times crucified as many as 500 Jews a day until they quashed what became known as the first Jewish revolt and destroyed the Second Temple. "Eventually they ran out of crosses and they ran out of space," he said.

Not much is known about Yehohanan Ben Hagkol, whose name in English means John, son of Hagkol. The name was carved in ancient Hebrew letters on an ossuary containing his bones in a tomb north of Jerusalem's Old City in 1968. At the time of his death he was between 24 and 28 years old, stood around five feet seven inches tall and was in excellent health - until he was hoisted on to a cross some time between CE 50 and 70. "He could have been a thief, he could have been a rebel. To his nation he may have been a hero," said archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferias, who discovered Ben Hagkol's remains during the excavation of an ancient Jewish family tomb.

The state of the skeletons in the tomb bore testimony to the turbulent times in which the Jews of Jerusalem lived in the first century. Nine of the 35 people buried there had met violent deaths. Others had died of starvation. When Ben Hagkol's remains were examined, archaeologists noticed the nail piercing what remained of the heel bone.

Archaeologists believe they have not uncovered other physical evidence of crucifixion because victims were sometimes tied rather than nailed to the cross and the corpses were often thrown onto garbage dumps where animals would feed off them. Nails of the crucified were also in high demand. People regarded them as powerful amulets that could ward off evil, so they would remove them from the bodies of victims.

In Ben Hagkol's case, the nail hammered through his heel bone had bent after catching in a knot of wood and relatives who retrieved his body would have been unable to remove it. As shown in graphic detail in Gibson's film, victims were often brutally beaten with whips of leather and metal before being taken to the cross.

Their hands were then either tied or nailed to the horizontal bar of the cross. They were stripped naked, strung up and left, sometimes for days, until they died. "It was used because it was so appalling. It was very painful and everybody could see the suffering. It must have been very humiliating too, hanging naked at the cross," Hengel said.

Gibson's film shows Jesus being hammered to the cross through his hands, in line with the traditional view depicted in religious icons and paintings since the Middle Ages. Zias said this reflects theology rather than reality. Jesus, like other victims of crucifixion, would either have had his hands tied to the cross, or been nailed through the wrist. "You cannot crucify a person through the hands because there is nothing there but skin and muscle. It will tear. It has to be done through the wrists."

Death could be relatively quick, within 10 minutes, for those whose hands were tied or nailed directly above their heads and whose feet were restrained too. A person crucified in this position would be unable to exhale, Zias said. This apparently was not the case with Jesus' crucifixion since the Gospels say it took several hours for him to die. "The body goes into shock and then you die from shock. You can keep a person up there for hours or you can keep a person up there for a few days depending on the method of crucifixion."

Is the National Religious Party Giving Away West Bank, Gaza

By Gail Winston (Commentary)

The NRP says they will quit the government as soon as an "official government decision" has been made to give away Gaza and significant parts of Judea and Samaria. But, needless to say, by then it will be too late.

Sharon is already acting as if an "official government decision" has been made. Once Sharon comes back from the U.S. with their reluctant "approval" - it will be a done deal. The vote in the Likud party will be effectively irrelevant and you can kiss Yesha goodbye.

The NRP could stop this by resigning now. By throwing the government into turmoil, they would slow Sharon down. What about Labor joining the government? Sharon's plans already reflect the dreams of the Labor party, so it doesn't really make a heck of a lot of difference. There is one major advantage to having Labor in the coalition - they will be looking for the first opportunity to bring down the government. This will also slow Sharon's Pied Piper's march of the lemmings over the cliff of national suicide.

Unfortunately, the NRP Knesset members are simply too comfortable in their ministerial seats and probably do not have the courage to risk their Volvos for the sake of the country.

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