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The incoming interior minister foiled the prime minister's attempt to execute a swift reform in the religious councils, one that is mainly sought by him and his cohorts. Now, when the prime minister also holds the interior portfolio, no one is standing in his way.

In a single sentence, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon killed the two birds that flew past the stage of the Israel Business Conference on Monday. "I am happy that everyone has remembered the weak," said Sharon, mocking his rivals, departing Histadrut chairman Amir Peretz and Benjamin Netanyahu, until recently his finance minister.

"Let's not turn the budget into the hostage of political chicanery," said the Kadima leader, aiming barbs at MKs who mouth expressions of great concern for the poor but, alas, will also vote against the budget. No such thing exists in the family of the Angel Ariel. Sharon and his sons have never heard of exploiting the budget for political needs.

As we know, no problem has concerned the Ranch Forum in the past few years more than providing succor to Israel's poor. Forget how to help developer David Appel buy himself a Greek island. Forget about helping the wretched members of the Likud Central Committee (on their way to Kadima?) to find jobs on religious councils.

As part of the all-out war against holding the budget hostage to political intrigues, Sharon tabled a proposal in the cabinet last month for a far-ranging reform of the religious councils. And how would that be achieved? Through the supplementary legislation to the budget law, an invention meant to enable the government to operate without having intrigue-beset Knesset interfere in its endeavors on behalf of the nation's wretched. And how would the reform of religious councils advance the struggle against using the budget (public funds, that is) to promote political interests? It would disconnect them from the local councils, and would transfer authority over them to the national government, in other words to the control of the prime minister. In place of the religious councils we would have a streamlined "councils' executive" that would be appointed by the cabinet. Its budget would be determined by the cabinet as would its term of office.

In a letter that was sent to Sharon, to Finance Minister Ehud Olmert and to Ophir Pines-Paz, the then interior minister, the chairman of the Union of Local Authorities, Adi Eldar, described the proposed law as "nationalization" of religious services, and the role designated for the local authorities as a "pipeline" for the transfer of funds to the executive body of the religious councils. Eldar wondered what was the rush in executing such a revolutionary reform in the form of an amendment to the supplementary budget law legislation, instead of conducting a serious discussion of the changes with the local authorities. He mentioned that the Union of Local Authorities had itself recommended some time ago a far-reaching reform in the religious councils of converting them from independent statutory bodies into departments of religious services within the local councils.

Pines-Paz well remembers the letter from Eldar, as well as the proposal of Union of Local Authorities. He says that he does not know a single mayor or cabinet minister opposed to the transfer of religious services to the local authorities. Pines-Paz says the reform that Sharon is seeking to enforce by way of the supplementary budget legislation would place control over immense budgets - and a gold mine of political appointments - in the hands of the prime minister. Pines-Paz relates that from the day he entered the Interior Ministry to the day he left, he was rebuffing a scheme hatched by the Prime Minister's Office to lay its hands on the balancing grants that the Interior Ministry apportions to local councils, to finance the budgets of their religious councils. These grants are mainly intended to support the welfare budgets of the local authorities that care for society's weakest segments. He has no doubt that the new interior minister - Ariel Sharon - will not stand in the way of the prime minister.

Sharon did not even wait for Pines-Paz's letter of resignation. At the last session of the Likud-Labor cabinet, he pushed through a resolution to approve budgets and to directly transfer the funds to 40 religious councils. Seven ministers voted in favor, including members of the Labor faction. Pines-Paz was the sole Labor minister to oppose the measure. The burden, he says, will fall mainly on local authorities, because, as opposed to education and welfare services, for which 75 percent of the budgets are covered by the national government - with the local authorities picking up the remaining 25 percent, the religious councils draw the majority of their budgets (60 percent) from the local authorities; the Finance Ministry contributes only 40 percent. Half of these authorities are in the midst of a "recovery program," which is an euphemism for bankruptcy. "I am in favor of every worker receiving his wages," says Paz-Pines, "but who ever heard of taking the wages of a local council employee in order to finance the wages of a religious council employee?"

Among the heads of local authorities who will end up paying the price are the mayors of Rishon Letzion, Rehovot and Ashdod, Meir Nitzan, Shuki Forer and Zvi Tzilker, respectively. Their names may also be found on letters of protest to Sharon in regard to the legislative proposal to rezone the agricultural land of moshavim and kibbutzim.

Netanya Mayor Miriam Feierberg-Ikar even wrote to Sharon that this plan would threaten the residents of her city no less than Palestinian terror. But none of this prevented her three colleagues from joining Sharon in Kadima. Incidentally, in this instance, Sharon has no complaints with the opposition about political intrigues. MK Ephraim Sneh of Labor volunteered to introduce the legislative bill in the Knesset.

Racism and punishment

This column reported last week on three Palestinians, residents of East Jerusalem, who were arrested last June and are now on trial on a charge of organizing election gatherings on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Israeli law, which is extended to East Jerusalem, describes the Front as a "hostile organization." Diplomatic agreements and democratic practices are of little interest to the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Police. They follow the law, and the State Prosecutor's Office files indictments.

It turns out that the Israeli army, which is sovereign in the occupied territories, has not weaned itself of the habit of arresting Palestinians whose sole crime is "membership in a hostile organization." Tarek Ziad Samara, a university student from the area of Jenin, has already sat in jail for five months because of a registration form for Islamic Jihad. Last week, the military tribunal in Samaria sentenced him to 15 months in prison - to begin from the day of his arrest, a NIS 2,000 fine, and a 10-month suspended sentence. The judge, Lieutenant-Colonel Vered Ornstein-Zehavi, noted that the sentence was given "in consideration of the defendant's clean record, his confession that did not require the court to hear witnesses and the remorse he expressed in court."

The following is an excerpt from the sentencing: "The defendant belonged to the organization for a brief period... The defense noted that the defendant was a member of an organization that encourages dialogue through encounters between Israeli and Palestinian students who are active on behalf of peace, and against violence. The indictment does not state whether he was active in any capacity (in Islamic Jihad), while in the matter of a second organization, the witness (an Israel student) testified that there had been meetings that advocated the common objective... The defendant noted that `I left the path' and that he was interested in continuing his studies. From what he said, it was understood that this was a one-time slip."

At about the same time, the prosecution in the police's Judea and Samaria District reached a plea bargain with Hilkiya Amrani. The following are excerpts from the indictment, which is among other things based on footage that was videotaped by Haim Yavin for the documentary television series about the settlers: "On April 19, 2003, at Hirbat Tuani, near the settlement of Maon [in the southern Hebron Hills - A.E.], the defendant attacked Fatima al-Harini, who was grazing a herd of sheep. He was armed with an M-16 rifle... In the course of an dispute, the defendant struck the complainant with a wooden board, causing hemorrhages in her arm, and also pushed the complainant to the ground. When the woman's son arrived on the scene, the defendant began firing his weapon repeatedly in the air, and also fired a bullet toward the son's foot as he was standing less than a meter away from the defendant."

When several local residents and Israeli citizens [activists in Ta'ayush for Arab-Jewish partnership - A.E.] arrived on the scene, the defendant began to threaten them, and fired the weapon indiscriminately toward the ground and in the air. As a result, Sulamiya Donyevsky was injured in the hand, and al-Harini in her face, both women from fragments.

The counts specified in the indictment: assault causing serious injury, committing an impetuous act, carelessness with a weapon, threats and assault. The sentence, based on the plea bargain: two months in prison or community service. The police's Judea and Samaria District spokesman explains that in consideration of the fact that it was a misdemeanor and that the defendant had no prior offenses, the sentence seems very reasonable. The spokesman of the Justice Ministry stated that the case in question was prosecuted by the police, and that there was therefore no justification for his giving a response.