1. REFERENDUM BILL DEFEATED IN ISRAELI PARLIAMENT… Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saw one of the final two obstacles to his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip dissipate when the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, overwhelmingly rejected a bill that would have enabled a national referendum on the issue. Passage of the 2005 state budget by the end of this month is the remaining obstacle, but its successful passage appears to be a foregone conclusion. That vote takes place on Tuesday. Opponents of the Gaza withdrawal said on Monday that having used up all legislative options available, they will take their campaign to the streets of Israel, hoping to rally the nation to oppose the planned pullout. Polls consistently show a majority of Israelis favoring the withdrawal.
2. ISRAELI DEFENSE MINISTER FEARS HAMAS WILL BE TOO STRONG AFTER JULY ELECTION… Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is concerned that Hamas will become “too strong in the Palestinian parliament” following the election scheduled for July. In an interview with The New York Times, Mofaz expressed his fear that Hamas’s political power will overcome that of Fatah, and called for the Hamas terrorist infrastructure to be dismantled before that happens. Mofaz also drew a line in the sand on the issue of Strella missiles that Israel claims have been smuggled from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. Mofaz ordered the army chief-of-staff-designate General Dan Halutz to meet with Palestinian intelligence chief Mousa Arafat and demand that the Palestinian Authority “put their hands on the smugglers and the Strellas and hand them over to us.” He threatened to have Israeli forces do the job if the Palestinians don’t. The Strellas are shoulder-fired missiles that could be effective against helicopters, which are a primary weapon employed by Israel against Palestinian terrorists.
3. ISRAELI RESIDENTS OF AREAS TO BE EVACUATED FEAR INTELLIGENCE INFILTRATION… Israelis living in communities scheduled to be abandoned in July’s pullout from the Gaza Strip are accusing Israeli security officials of trying to plant undercover agents among the residents. The newspaper Haaretz quoted teenagers living in the Gaza Strip who told of attempts by strangers to pay them for information about planned anti-withdrawal rallies and the promises that families of informants would leave last. The paper also quoted a teen who was arrested at a rally who told of being promised an easy time in court in return for his cooperation.
4. WORKERS FROM NEW YORK’S PLAZA HOTEL COME TO ISRAEL TO LOBBY FOR THEIR JOBS… A contingent of workers from New York’s landmark Plaza Hotel arrived in Israel at the end of the week to lobby the hotel’s Israeli owner to save their jobs. Yitzhak Tshuva and his Elad Properties purchased the historic hotel and intend to convert most of it into luxury apartments and commercial space. In the process, about 1,000 hotel workers will lose their jobs. The group came to Israel to arouse sympathy in local media in hopes of persuading Tshuva to change his plans. They are asking that only 20% of the hotel be converted to residences. Elad Properties told Globes financial newspaper that its offers to employees, including increased compensation, have been refused.