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The Education Ministry decided yesterday to immediately halt funding to the three private religious schools in Petah Tikva refusing to enroll Ethiopian immigrant children as the ministry instructed.

The decision followed a hearing with the principals of the three schools, Darkei Noam, Lamerhav and Da'at Mevinim.

The first such decision of its kind means the schools will have to find an alternative source for the 60 to 75 percent of their funding, which the ministry provides.

Two protests critical of the schools are scheduled for today, one in Petah Tikva and another in Jerusalem, before the issue is brought before the Knesset Education Committee.

Rejecting the Ethiopian students is simply "a moral terror attack," something counter to our entire ethos, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday in an interview he gave to both Army Radio and Israel Radio.

The Petah Tikva municipality said yesterday afternoon that it had reached an arrangement with the three principals. MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima) former director-general of the Education Ministry, who had met with the three principals to work toward an agreement, said they had been "maligned though they had done no wrong."

In a stormy press conference Mayor Itzik Ohayon presented an agreement based on a statement by Tirosh to the press. He said the three private schools would accept 30 students, the religious public schools would take 34 and other, more Orthodox private schools would enroll about 45 students. However, it quickly became clear the agreement Ohayon presented was a not based on anything in writing, that it reduced the number of students the private schools should take from 50 to 30, and included a clause saying the schools could enroll students based on "indicators of a way of life customary in the school." When asked about this clause at the press conference, Ohayon said it was unacceptable to him.

Meanwhile, the Petah Tikva parents' committee announced that the supposed compromise did not reflect an egalitarian and fair distribution of the immigrant children among all the religious schools in the city, and that they were continuing with preparations to strike the Petah Tikva school system, which has a student body of some 40,000.

MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima) said: "The mayor is trying to legitimize racist policies in the private schools, and we oppose this."

At 4 P.M. yesterday, senior officials from the three schools - Shmuel Schiff and Haggai Junger from Darkei Noam, Haim Freulichman from Da'at Mevinim and Avraham Grandvich from Lamerhav - began separate hearings with Education Ministry director-general Shimshon Shoshani.

Shortly after the hearings ended, the Education Ministry issued a statement that it rejected the agreement made "behind its back" between the Petah Tikva municipality and the three private institutions. The ministry rejected classifying students by interviews and added: "We insist on the enrollment of Ethiopian immigrants in the private schools according to the original assigned list of names transferred by the city to the institutions and the Education Ministry, which the ministry has approved [and is much more extensive]."

The ministry said: "Under the circumstances it has been decided, as a first step, to stop ministry funding to the three schools. We insist on the enrollment of the students unconditionally according to their original placements by name."

In response to the ministry's statement, spokesmen for the three private schools said: "Agreements on the placement of students in elementary schools in the city are in the hands of the city. We accepted the placements given us today by Mayor Ohayon, who was able, after great effort, to find a solution that included most of the educational systems in the city. We approve of this solution."