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An Historic Climb to Masada


Over 1,000 young olim (new immigrants to Israel) will "descend" upon Masada Wednesday. They live in absorption centers around the country, in the framework of Jewish Agency immigration programs, and arrived from South America, Ethiopia, the former USSR, etc. The youths will climb the historic mountain as part of their education about the bonds between the Jewish People and its land. The ultimate goal of the Agency program is to integrate the youths into Israeli society - via enlistment in the army, academic studies or employment - and then to have their parents join them in Israel.

Sharon Discusses Amendment to Gaza Disengagement Plan with Coalition Partners

By Sonja Pace (VOA-Jerusalem)

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is meeting with his coalition partners to try to come up with an amended disengagement plan he hopes can win enough support to be implemented. Sunday, Sharon's Likud Party voted down his original plan to dismantle all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and portions of the West Bank.

Justice Minister Josef Lapid was among those meeting with Sharon. He said the Israeli leader has assured him he would continue peace efforts and would seek support for a modified disengagement plan. Lapid, who heads the centrist Shinui party, has threatened to pull out of the coalition if disengagement is not implemented.

Speaking earlier on Israeli TV, Lapid said the government could not be held hostage by what he says is a small minority of the country's total population. "We are obliged by the decisions made by the government and the parliament. This is a democracy and not a one-party rule. And, we invite the government to continue with the peace process."

According to an opinion poll in the Israeli newspaper, Yediot Achronot, had Sharon put the plan to a national referendum, it would have passed by over 60 percent. For months, Sharon promoted his plan as vital to Israel's security in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. President Bush endorsed it, but the Israeli leader's Likud Party in a referendum rejected it on Sunday.

Sharon is now considering a watered-down version of the plan that would include a very limited withdrawal of settlements from Gaza and a few from the West Bank. The Israeli leader is also coming under pressure from the opposition Labor party, which supports his original disengagement plan and has incorporated it into its own party platform. Labor is calling for Sharon to step aside for early elections and a new government.

Speaking on Israel Radio, Labor Party Knesset member Yitzhak Herzog said Sharon could no longer be effective. "He cannot proceed with his plan. He is tied up by his own party members and his own peers. He cannot implement any policy and the only policy they can implement is going against the tide and going against the interests of the people of Israel. And, therefore we believe that he must be replaced." Sharon has vowed he would not resign.

Palestinians remain suspicious of Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan, seeing it as a way to keep Palestinian land Israel now occupies in the West Bank. They say while they welcome any Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas, unilateral moves must not replace a negotiated settlement.

Former U.S. Diplomats Criticize Bush Mideast Policy

By Laurie Kassman (VOA-Washington)

More than 50 former U.S. diplomats have made public an open letter protesting President Bush's Mideast policy, which they say is costing the United States its credibility and prestige.

The letter by the former diplomats expresses their concern about Bush's current Middle East policy. The letter is critical of his public endorsement of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral decision to dismantle Jewish settlements in Gaza and some parts of the West Bank and his rejection of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

One of the signatories, former U.S. ambassador to Greece, Robert Keeley, echoed the letter's warning that excluding the Palestinians from the negotiations on such critical issues has undermined the U.S. role as an honest broker. "What we have now experienced is an agreement reached behind the backs of the Palestinians without any consultation with them. That ends any hope of the U.S. continuing to act as an honest broker since we have now irrevocably chosen to side with one side to the exclusion of the other."

Former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Edward Peck, who also signed the open letter, said that the administration's approach to the Middle East is weakening U.S. credibility at a critical time in the region. "We have short-circuited the system. "We have eroded enormously our already weakened credibility and I think we have put the people who live in that part of the world at serious risk for a long time to come."

Reacting to news of the open letter, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told a TV interviewer the beauty of democracy is that people can speak out even against the president without fear of retribution. But he added that he does not think it is especially significant one way or the other. He said that it is an example of democracy at work.

Earliest Known Use of Fire Discovered by Israeli Scientists

By David McAlary (VOA-Washington)

Israeli scientists have discovered evidence of the earliest known use of fire by humans. The remains of burned seeds, wood, and flint near an Israeli lakeshore appear to be leftovers from campfires that blazed almost 800,000 years ago. Sitting around a crackling campfire is one of the oldest human activities. But no one knows how old.

The earliest accepted date for human control of fire has been 250,000 years ago based on foolproof evidence of well-preserved hearths in cave sites. But researchers from Hebrew and Bar-Ilan Universities in Israel have found signs of controlled burning more than three times that old, from about 790,000 years ago.

"What we actually found is the earliest evidence for the use of fire," explained Hebrew University archaeologist Naama Goren-Inbar. She and her colleagues report in the journal Science that the evidence they found consists of tiny pieces of burned flint and the charcoal remains of six types of wood, including olive, barley, and grape well preserved by water-logged layers of soil near an Israeli lake. "The combination of the two types of evidence is very important because this was rarely ever demonstrated elsewhere. We were able to demonstrate that this burning is not a natural fire, but this is [caused by] human involvement."

The Israeli researchers say the fire users were not modern humans, but possibly any of three different species that lived before us. University of Colorado archaeologist Paola Villa says if their claim is substantiated, it might help explain how early humans were able to migrate and adapt to cold climates.

Protecting Israel's Olympic Team


Israeli athletes along with their counterparts from Britain and America will be assigned individual armed guards to ensure their safety at the Athens Olympics this summer. The guards, who are being provided by the Greek police, will provide 24-hour protection from possible terrorist attacks. The BBC reported that athletes from other countries, which have sent troops to Iraq, might also receive similar protection.

The Greek minister in charge of the massive Olympic security operation is holding talks in Washington this week. Officials say he will discuss whether countries such as the United States can provide their own armed security guards to protect their national teams.

According to Greek Minister for Public Order Georgios Floridis, who is in charge of the event's security, "Israel is a key country with respect to providing intelligence information to, and training and drilling the Greek security forces." He explained that Israel's involvement is three-fold: testing the reliability of the Greek security arrangements; providing expertise in dealing with suicide bombers; and giving intelligence information about terror organizations and potential threats.

Floridis said that Greek security was preparing for both "conflict-specific" terrorism, such as Chechens attacking the Russian delegation or Palestinians attacking the Israeli one, as well as for general, Al-Qaida attacks on the Olympics itself. The 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany were overshadowed by the murders of 11 Israeli athletes and officials by Arab terrorists.

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