Heads of churches say Israeli government is demanding they pay property tax, upsetting status quo

Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (AP)
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Updated 23 June 2024
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Heads of churches say Israeli government is demanding they pay property tax, upsetting status quo

JERUSALEM: Leaders of major churches have accused Israeli authorities of launching a “coordinated attack” on the Christian presence in the Holy Land by initiating tax proceedings against them.
While Israeli officials have tried to dismiss the disagreement as a routine financial matter, the churches say the move upsets a centuries-old status quo and reflects mounting intolerance for the tiny Christian presence in the Holy Land.
In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, the heads of the major Christian denominations alleged that four municipalities across Israel had recently submitted warning letters to church officials cautioning them of legal action if they did not pay taxes.
“We believe these efforts represent a coordinated attack on the Christian presence in the Holy Land,” wrote the heads of the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox churches. “In this time, when the whole world, and the Christian world in particular, are constantly following the events in Israel, we find ourselves, once again, dealing with an attempt by authorities to drive the Christian presence out of the Holy Land.”
Christians are a tiny minority, making up less than 2 percent of the population of Israel and the Palestinian territories. There are 182,000 Christians in Israel, 50,000 in the West Bank and Jerusalem and 1,300 in Gaza, according to the US State Department. The vast majority are Palestinians.
The churches, who are major landowners in the Holy Land, say they do not pay property taxes under longstanding tradition. They say their funds go to services that benefit the state, like schools, hospitals and homes for the elderly.
The letter said the municipalities of Tel Aviv, Ramla, Nazareth and Jerusalem in recent months have all either issued warning letters or commenced legal action for alleged tax debts.
The Jerusalem municipality told The Associated Press that the church had not submitted the necessary requests for tax exemptions over the last few years. It said that “a dialogue is taking place with the churches to collect debts for the commercial properties they own.”
The other municipalities did not immediately comment. It was unclear if the municipalities acted in a coordinated effort or whether the tax moves are coincidental.
In 2018, Christians closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — revered by Christians as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection — to protest a move by Israeli officials to impose taxes on commercial properties in the holy city.
The Christian leaders argued that the sites — like pilgrim hostels and information centers — served important religious and cultural purposes, and that taxing them would infringe on Christian religious observance in the Holy Land. After the public backlash, Netanyahu quickly suspended the plan.


First ships dock in Yemen harbor after Israel strike: Houthi media

Updated 24 July 2024
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First ships dock in Yemen harbor after Israel strike: Houthi media

  • “The port of Hodeida is working normally around the clock” to receive commercial ships, Ahmed Al-Murtada, the deputy director of the container terminal, said
  • Ship tracking website marinetraffic.com confirmed the arrival on Tuesday of Marsa Zenith

HODEIDA, Yemen: Two container ships have docked in Yemen’s Hodeida harbor, the first since a deadly Israeli strike hit fuel storage tanks at the militant-held port, according to Houthi media and ship trackers.
The strikes on Saturday, the first claimed by Israel on Yemen, triggered a massive blaze that burned for days at the dock amid slow firefighting efforts.
It destroyed some cranes and dozens of oil tanks, according to experts. Another tank exploded overnight between Tuesday and Wednesday, reigniting some flames at the harbor, a critical gateway for fuel imports and humanitarian aid into Houthi-held areas.
Despite the ongoing threat, “the port of Hodeida is working normally around the clock” to receive commercial ships, Ahmed Al-Murtada, the deputy director of the container terminal, told the Houthi-run Saba news agency on Tuesday.
The port’s director of maritime operations, Mohamed Al-Sais, told Saba that two ships had docked at the harbor on Tuesday.
He identified them as “Marsa Zenith,” a vessel that carried 514 containers of “various goods,” and “Brother 1,” which was loaded with 22,803 tons of iron, Saba said.
Ship tracking website marinetraffic.com confirmed the arrival on Tuesday of Marsa Zenith, identifying it as a Panama-flagged vessel that departed from the port of Djibouti.
It additionally reported the arrival of the Tanzania-flagged Brother 1, which also sailed from Djibouti, according to the website.
The quays of Hodeida were spared major damage in the Israeli strike that militants say killed nine people and targeted a fuel storage depot owned by the Yemen Petroleum Company as well as a power plant north of the port.
Maritime security firm Ambrey said there were no reports of major damage to vessels in or near the harbor following the strike.
The port, however, is still at risk of another “catastrophe,” said Mwatana for Human Rights, a Yemeni right group which dispatched an assessment team to the dock.
“Based on (the findings of) our field team, the risk of more fuel tanks exploding still remains,” it told AFP in an emailed statement.
“Whenever the firefighting teams tried to extinguish the fires, the explosions and flames reignited,” Mwatana said.
“There are major concerns that the teams may not be able to... prevent another explosion.”


Hezbollah broadcasts drone video it says shows air base deep in Israel

Updated 24 July 2024
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Hezbollah broadcasts drone video it says shows air base deep in Israel

  • It was the third in a series of videos released by Hezbollah
  • The latest video was more than eight minutes long and, Hezbollah said, mostly shot on Tuesday

BEIRUT: Lebanese armed group Hezbollah broadcast drone video on Wednesday that it said showed air defense facilities, planes and fuel storage units at Israel’s Ramat David air base, nearly 50km (30 miles) into Israeli territory.
It was the third in a series of videos released by Hezbollah which the group has said are meant to demonstrate how far its surveillance of Israel has reached. The first video showed the Israeli port city of Haifa and the second the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
A spokesman for the Israeli military said in a statement on X that the video was filmed by a surveillance drone and the base’s operations were not affected.
The latest video was more than eight minutes long and, Hezbollah said, mostly shot on Tuesday.
It included labels pointing out apparent military infrastructure, including the short-range Iron Dome air defense system which is designed to destroy rockets and drones.
The video also included nighttime shots that Hezbollah said were captured “earlier” and other images the group said were taken earlier in July. The caption said it was only “some” of what the drone had captured.
The videos were released as tensions mount over Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza and over frequent exchanges of fire across Lebanon’s border with Israel.
Hezbollah has sought to evade high-tech Israeli surveillance with low-tech means, while sending its own drones across the border to monitor and attack Israeli military positions.


‘Miracle’ baby born in Gaza after airstrike kills heavily pregnant mother

Updated 24 July 2024
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‘Miracle’ baby born in Gaza after airstrike kills heavily pregnant mother

  • Mother fell through several floors of bombed family home
  • Families face daily tragedy as Israel battles Hamas in Gaza

GAZA: Nine months pregnant, Ola Al-Kurd could not wait to hold her baby and bring new life to Gaza during a war which has killed over 39,000 fellow Palestinians and razed much of the enclave.
That special moment never came.
An Israeli airstrike smashed into the family home in Al-Nuseirat in central Gaza on July 19, according to her father Adnan Al-Kurd. The blast threw Ola down several floors to her death in the house, whose inhabitants included women, children and the elderly, he said.
Somehow, her baby survived, as did her husband, who was hospitalized.
“It’s a miracle that the fetus stayed alive inside of her when she was martyred (died),” Adnan Al-Kurd said, contemplating a photo of his daughter’s graduation.
The explosion, like many others, killed several members of a single family, a daily tragedy across Gaza since Israel began its offensive in Gaza in response to a devastating cross-border attack by Palestinian Hamas militants on Oct. 7 last year.
Mediators from the United States, Qatar and Egypt have failed in multiple attempts to secure a ceasefire. So it is highly unlikely that Israeli airstrikes and shelling will end anytime soon.
“She wanted to hold her child and fill our home with his presence,” Al-Kurd said. “She would say, ‘Mom, hopefully, this will make up for the loss of my martyred brothers and bring life back to our home’.”
Entirely against the odds, surgeons at Al Awda hospital in Nuseirat — where Ola was first taken after the strike — managed to deliver the newborn, Malek Yassin. He was then transferred to Al Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al-Balah, where an aunt touched the baby’s face as he lay in an incubator.
“Thank God, this baby’s life was saved and he is now alive and well,” doctor Khalil Al-Dakran said at the hospital, where many medical facilities have been destroyed in over nine months of war.
Al-Kurd gazes at photos of his three late children killed in the Gaza war. He said baby Yassin is blond like his deceased uncle Omar. “I go visit him everyday. He is a part of me,” he said.
Babies who survive frequent Israeli bombardment get no relief as the conflict inflicts more destruction in the heavily built-up, densely populated Gaza Strip.
“We are in fact facing very great difficulties in the nursery department,” said Al-Dakran, due to a lack of sufficient medication and supplies and fears that the hospital generator could stop at any moment due to fuel shortages.
Hospitals across impoverished Gaza have been demolished or seriously damaged during the war, which began when Hamas-led fighters attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking over 250 hostages according to Israeli tallies.
Israel responded with an air and ground offensive that has killed more than 39,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, and levelled much of the coastal territory.
“What is the fault of this child to start his life under difficult and very bad circumstances, deprived of the most basic necessities of life?” said Dakran.


Climate change imperils drought-stricken Morocco’s cereal farmers and its food supply

Updated 24 July 2024
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Climate change imperils drought-stricken Morocco’s cereal farmers and its food supply

  • Delays to annual rains and inconsistent weather patterns have pushed the growing season later in the year and made planning difficult for farmers.
  • Agriculture Ministry estimates that this year’s wheat harvest will yield roughly 3.4 million tons, far less than last year’s 6.1 million tons

KENITRA: Golden fields of wheat no longer produce the bounty they once did in Morocco. A six-year drought has imperiled the country’s entire agriculture sector, including farmers who grow cereals and grains used to feed humans and livestock.
The North African nation projects this year’s harvest will be smaller than last year in both volume and acreage, putting farmers out of work and requiring more imports and government subsidies to prevent the price of staples like flour from rising for everyday consumers.
“In the past, we used to have a bounty — a lot of wheat. But during the last seven or eight years, the harvest has been very low because of the drought,” said Al Housni Belhoussni, a small-scale farmer who has long tilled fields outside of the city of Kenitra.
Belhoussni’s plight is familiar to grain farmers throughout the world confronting a hotter and drier future. Climate change is imperiling the food supply and, in regions like North Africa, shrinking the annual yields of cereals that dominate diets around the world — wheat, rice, maize and barley.
The region is one of the most vulnerable in the world to climate change. Delays to annual rains and inconsistent weather patterns have pushed the growing season later in the year and made planning difficult for farmers.
In Morocco, where cereals account for most of the farmed land and agriculture employs the majority of workers in rural regions, the drought is wreaking havoc and touching off major changes that will transform the makeup of the economy. It has forced some to leave their fields fallow. It has also made the areas they do elect to cultivate less productive, producing far fewer sacks of wheat to sell than they once did.
In response, the government has announced restrictions on water use in urban areas — including on public baths and car washes — and in rural ones, where water going to farms has been rationed.
“The late rains during the autumn season affected the agriculture campaign. This year, only the spring rains, especially during the month of March, managed to rescue the crops,” said Abdelkrim Naaman, the chairman of Nalsya. The organization has advised farmers on seeding, irrigation and drought mitigation as less rain falls and less water flows through Morocco’s rivers.
The Agriculture Ministry estimates that this year’s wheat harvest will yield roughly 3.4 million tons, far less than last year’s 6.1 million tons — a yield that was still considered low. The amount of land seeded has dramatically shrunk as well, from 36,700 square kilometers to 24,700 square kilometers.
Such a drop constitutes a crisis, said Driss Aissaoui, an analyst and former member of the Moroccan Ministry for Agriculture.
“When we say crisis, this means that you have to import more,” he said. “We are in a country where drought has become a structural issue.”
Leaning more on imports means the government will have to continue subsidizing prices to ensure households and livestock farmers can afford dietary staples for their families and flocks, said Rachid Benali, the chairman of the farming lobby COMADER.
The country imported nearly 2.5 million tons of common wheat between January and June. However, such a solution may have an expiration date, particularly because Morocco’s primary source of wheat, France, is facing shrinking harvests as well.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization ranked Morocco as the world’s sixth-largest wheat importer this year, between Turkiye and Bangladesh, which both have much bigger populations.
“Morocco has known droughts like this and in some cases known droughts that las longer than 10 years. But the problem, this time especially, is climate change,” Benali said.


Netanyahu says no change at Al-Aqsa after Ben-Gvir’s remarks

Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem on July 17, 2024. (AFP)
Updated 30 min 4 sec ago
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Netanyahu says no change at Al-Aqsa after Ben-Gvir’s remarks

  • “Israel’s policy of maintaining the status quo on the Temple Mount has not changed and will not change,” Netanyahu’s office said
  • Earlier on Wednesday Ben-Gvir told parliament: “I am the political echelon, and the political echelon allows Jewish prayer at Temple Mount”

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday there was no change in policy at a sacred Jerusalem site, after a far-right cabinet minister said Jews could now pray there, remarks that another minister said could set the region ablaze.
“Israel’s policy of maintaining the status quo on the Temple Mount has not changed and will not change,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement from Washington, a few hours before he was due to address the US Congress.
Earlier on Wednesday, the pro-settler right-wing National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir told parliament: “I am the political echelon, and the political echelon allows Jewish prayer at Temple Mount.”
The compound, in Jerusalem’s walled Old City, houses Islam’s third-holiest shrine, Al-Aqsa mosque, and is also revered in Judaism as the Temple Mount, a vestige of two ancient temples.
Under a delicate decades-old “status quo” arrangement with Muslim authorities, Israel allows Jews to visit but refrain from prayer. The site is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and suggestions that Israel would alter rules about religious observance there have led to violence in the past.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, responding to Ben-Gvir on X, said: “There’s a pyromaniac sitting in the Israeli government and trying to ignite the Middle East.”
Since bringing Ben-Gvir into government in 2022, Netanyahu has overruled many of his ideas. Since the Oct. 7 attack on Israeli towns that triggered the war in Gaza, Ben-Gvir has been excluded from Netanyahu’s decision-making war cabinet.
Gallant said he objected to giving Ben-Gvir a seat. Ben-Gvir, in response, said Gallant was pushing for an irresponsible deal that would end the Gaza war without vanquishing Hamas.
The United States, Qatar and Egypt are mediating a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas that would include a hostage release.
Over the past few months, Ben-Gvir has voiced objection to a ceasefire, called for Israel to permanently occupy and settle the Palestinian enclave and has issued threats to bring down Netanyahu’s government if it ends the war.