Monday, September 12, 2005

Palestinians set synagogue/s ablaze in former Gaza settlement 

Preceded by bitter internal debate in Israel.
Mon., September 12, 2005 Elul 8, 5765
By Aluf Benn and Amos Harel, Haaretz Correspondents, and Haaretz Service

Palestinians moved into the abandoned Gaza Strip settlement of Morag before dawn on Monday after Israel Defense Forces troops pulled out of the area and set the synagogue on fire. Huge flames leapt into the sky.

In another synagogue, gunmen climbed on the roof and waved flags of militant groups, including Hamas, shouting "God is great."

Just hours earlier, the Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman said the Palestinian Authority will destroy the synagogues left behind in Gaza by evacuating IDF troops.

All remaining buildings in the evacuated Jewish settlements will be destroyed except for the hothouses, the spokesman, Tawfiq Abu Khoussa, told The Associated Press.

Earlier in the day, the Israeli government voted not to demolish the synagogues. The Palestinians have expressed dismay at the Israeli decision, saying it puts them in an impossible position because they may be criticized for destroying houses of worship but at the same time they need the space for their development plans for post-Israel Gaza.

"It's better for us and for you to destory the synagogues," Jibril Rajoub, the PA chairman's security adviser, told Israel Radio on Sunday. "I think the synagogues are symbols of the occupation."

Earlier on Sunday, the government voted 14-2 against demolishing the some two dozen synagogues in the evacuated Gaza settlements.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the decision "puts the Palestinian Authority into a situation where it may be criticized for whatever it does."

Labor Ministers Ophir Pines-Paz and Haim Ramon voted in favor of the demolition. Minister Dalia Itzik, also from Labor, abstained.

Earlier in the cabinet meeting, the ministers unanimously gave the Israel Defense Forces the green light to end military rule in the Gaza Strip, installed 38 years ago following the Six-Day War, and approved the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Philadelphi route along the Gaza-Egypt border. However, the Palestinian Authority said the synagogue decision could lead to a delay of the pullout.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the cabinet meeting before the synagogue vote Sunday that he opposed the demolition, but referred to the synagogue buildings - from which all sacred objects have been removed - as "houses that were used as synagogues."

Explaining the reasoning behind his decision, Sharon said it was not possible to relocate the synagogues, and cited recommendations by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz - who called for Sunday's vote in an effort to avert the destruction - and rabbis from Israel and abroad that the synagogues be left standing, the Itim news agency reported.

Supporters of the synagogue destruction say they don't want the Palestinians to desecrate or demolish them, while opponents of the demolition say Jews must not be the ones to destroy synagogues, regardless of what the Palestinians do.

The Yesha Council of settlements responded to the cabinet decision saying, "The Yesha Council welcomes the intelligence and the Jewish emotion that managed, last-minute, to pierce the impermeable hearts of the government ministers."

Meanwhile, Defense Ministry officials affixed signs in Hebrew and Arabic reading "Holy Place" to the exterior wall of each former synagogue.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz sharply criticized ministers who changed their mind on the demolition and decided at the last minute to oppose it, calling the ministers' backtracking an "embarrassing process."

Mazuz said nothing had changed since the government voted two weeks ago to destroy the synagogues, and said the state had defended the demolition before the High Court of Justice, which ruled that destroying the synagogues was permissible.

Mazuz quoted Mofaz as having said two weeks ago that the day after the army withdraws from Gaza, "There will be a tsunami of Hamas, and not even a single synagogue will be preserved."

At the end of August, the cabinet rejected a demand by the chief rabbis to refrain from destroying the synagogues and adopted a proposal (see below) submitted by Mofaz, whereby everything possible was to be removed from the synagogues before they were demolished.

At Sunday's cabinet meeting, however, Mofaz gave an emotional speech in favor of leaving the synagogues intact.

"I once again suggest that we do not destroy the synagogues and do not multiply the pain," he said. "Jewish sentiment, Jewish law and deeply significant emotions are involved here, [telling me] I must not give a directive to the Israel Defense Forces to destroy the synagogues. And if critics and cynics say I changed my mind, I accept this with love."

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom explained his decision to vote against demolishing the structures, saying Jewish leaders from all over the world warned him that razing the synagogues could be a dangerous precedent justifying the demolition of Jewish holy places by foreign governments.

"Jews do not destroy synagogues," Shalom said. "I hope the Palestinian Authority will come to their senses and not allow barbarism and vandalism to rule over the synagogues. If this does happen, the world will see what we're dealing with."

Pines-Paz said there was no reason for the government to adopt the position of the Chief Rabbinate, which opposes the demolition, and said he doesn't see why it is "more Jewish" to allow the synagogues to be desecrated or turned into mosques than to be destroyed.

"We're not the Chief Rabbinate, we're the government of Israel," he told Israel Radio after the vote. "We are responsible for anything that happens or doesn't happen."

Some politicians suggested compromise options Sunday, offering proposals beyond either dismantling all the synagogues or leaving them all intact.

National Infrastructures Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) said Sunday the synagogues should be dismantled and moved to Israel - an option Sharon said during the cabinet meeting was not feasible. Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra (Likud) suggested leaving four large Gaza synagogues intact, while destroying the rest. And MK Rabbi Michael Melchior (Labor) proposed making the four large synagogues into centers of peace and humanitarian aid.

Cabinet set to vote against razing Gaza synagogues

By Yuval Yoaz and Gideon Alon

At least nine ministers are expected to vote against the demolition of the Gaza Strip synagogues in today's cabinet meeting.

In addition to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who called on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Thursday to postpone the synagogue destruction until today's meeting, six other Likud ministers - Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra, Health Minister Dan Naveh, Minister without Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi and Education Minister Limor Livnat - as well as National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Environment Minister Shalom Simhon, both from Labor, have announced their opposition to the move.

Four more ministers, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said they will make their decision on the matter closer to the time of the vote. The other three undecided are Communications Minister Dalia Itzik and Vice Premier Shimon Peres, both from Labor, and Tourism Minister Abraham Hirchson (Likud). If the four join those opposed to the demolition, it will mean a majority against the move.

"I have received appeals from Jewish leaders throughout the world," Shalom said, "that the destruction of synagogues would be a dangerous precedent." Ben-Eliezer said "the razing of the synagogues erases any moral claim to demand the protection and preservation of synagogues elsewhere in the world."

Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor) called on Sharon not to accede to Mofaz's request for another debate after the cabinet had received the backing of the High Court. He said any postponement would leave IDF soldiers in the Gaza Strip unnecessarily.

High Court of Justice President Aharon Barak met recently with former MK Hanan Porat, now a settler leader, and the pair discussed Israel's intention to destroy the synagogues in the Gaza Strip.

The meeting took place about two weeks ago, following a ruling by a High Court panel approving the cabinet's decision to raze the synagogues, and before the request for another hearing was made.

Barak did not take part in the first panel, and when he learned an appeal might be made on its ruling, he cut the conversation short so as not to have to recuse himself.

On August 31, in its first ruling, the High Court rejected an appeal to annul the cabinet decision ordering the razing of the synagogues. Four days later, an appeal was made for another hearing on the ruling, and it was rejected Thursday. However, between the first ruling and last week's rejection, Porat called Barak to request a meeting. The pair know each other from the time Porat served as chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

During the meeting, Porat said he "expressed the great pain hundreds of thousands of people feel because of disengagement, the destruction of settlements and the expulsion of settlers, not on a political level but on a social-human level."

When the subject of the destruction of the synagogues came up, Barak asked Porat whether there would be an appeal for another hearing. When Porat answered that it was being considered, Barak said "it is better to stop the conversation now," to avoid having to recuse himself from the hearing.

Last week's hearing took place before a panel of seven justices, headed by Barak, with Porat in attendance. Barak told the court about his meeting with Porat, but neither side asked Barak to recuse himself.

The court spokeswoman said Porat had asked to speak to Barak urgently, without saying what he wanted to discuss. As soon as Porat started talking about the synagogues, and Barak realized there might be an appeal, the conversation was stopped, she added.

State asks Court to remove ban on razing of Gaza synagogues

By Yuval Yoaz, Amos Harel and Gideon Alon, Haaretz Correspondents and Haaretz Staff

State prosecutors Monday asked the High Court of Justice to rescind an order which bars demolition of Gush Katif synagogues.

They also asked the court to reject a motion for an additional hearing on the matter.

On Sunday the High Court issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the demolition of the synagogues in Gush Katif until further notice.

Justice Ayala Procaccia issued the order in response to a petition for a further hearing submitted by the former rabbi of the Gaza Strip settlement of Elei Sinai, Yishai Bar-Chen.

The injunction will remain in force until the High Court decides whether to hold another hearing.

Also on Sunday, the cabinet rejected a demand by Chief Rabbis Yonah Metzger and Shlomo Amar to refrain from destroying the synagogues.

Instead, the ministers adopted a proposal submitted by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz under which everything possible will be removed from the 20 synagogues before they are demolished. Two prefabricated buildings that served as synagogues will be moved inside the pre-1967 Green Line armistice line. Mofaz said he had instructed the Israel Defense Forces to begin dismantling the synagogues immediately.

In the petition to the High Court, ultra-Orthodox spiritual leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv is quoted as calling for an international commitment to preserve the synagogues and leave them standing. "This petition involves the historic fate of the synagogues of Gush Katif in the wider perspective of human rights of individuals and communities, and the violation of the religious sensibilities of Jews throughout the world in the face of the eradication of synagogues," the petition said.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said that anything that could be dismantled - doors, windows, Stars of David - would be removed and used to commemorate the houses of worship. He recalled how the synagogue built in 1540 in Hebron had to be destroyed after the Six-Day War since it had been used as a toilet and a sheep pen.

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