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The Media Line Daily News Focus

1. ISRAEL PASSES 2005 BUDGET IN TIME TO PREVENT COLLAPSE OF GOVERNMENT… Israel’s budget for the current year was approved by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, on Tuesday night, averting the collapse of the Sharon government and removing the final obstacle to the planned pullout from the Gaza Strip. Opponents of the withdrawal plan had tried to prevent passage of the budget as a way of sidelining the evacuation of all Israeli communities in the Gaza Strip and four in the Samaria region of post-1967 territories. Passage of the budget came at great fiscal expense for Sharon, who spent hundreds of millions of shekels to inveigle support from the various political factions. Sharon now faces a struggle to find the funding he needs to create a number of new ministerial and deputy ministerial positions as pay-backs for those who supported him in the budget fight.

2. SYRIA SAYS IT WILL LEAVE LEBANON BEFORE MAY ELECTIONS… In a letter to the United Nations, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq A-Shara’ says Syria’s 14,000 troops will be gone from Lebanon before May’s Lebanese election. It is estimated that 6,000 soldiers have already left. The assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri on February 14th triggered massive popular protests against the Syrian presence in Lebanon. Most observers believe that Syria was behind the killing, an accusation supported by a report issued by a United Nations investigator last week. Stopping short of actually accusing Syria of killing Al-Hariri, it detailed threats made by Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad to “harm” Al-Hariri. Prime Minister ‘Umar Karami resigned two weeks after the killing, but was reinstated by President Emil Lahoud, a Syrian loyalist. Karami, also pro-Syrian, said on Tuesday that he will resign again because he is unable to enlist the support of the anti-Syrian opposition to form a unity government.

3. ISLAMIC JIHAD ATTENDS ITS FIRST PLO MEETING… The Islamic Jihad terrorist organization for the first time attended a meeting of the PLO executive committee. The Gaza City session was presided over by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud ‘Abbas, who also serves as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Hamas was invited to attend, but turned down the offer although a spokesman said it had agreed in principle to participate. Both groups will not accept formal membership in the PLO executive committee until after Palestinian parliamentary elections are held in July.

4. COURT HALTS WORK ON 9/11 MEMORIAL IN THE JERUSALEM FOREST… The Jewish National Fund has lost its bid to build a memorial to the World Trade Center in the Jerusalem forest. The Jerusalem Court for Administrative Affairs ruled that the area selected for the tribute is dedicated for preservation and all building there is forbidden. An anonymous donor gave $1 million two years ago for construction of a 9/11 memorial. The Jerusalem municipality issued a permit for the memorial, but the plan was challenged by environmental groups.

5. HUMAN RIGHTS GROUPS: ISRAELI RESPONSIBILITY FOR GAZA CONTINUES AFTER PULLOUT… Two Israeli human rights organizations are arguing that Israel’s responsibility for the Gaza Strip will continue after it withdraws its troops and civilian communities in July. B’Tzelem and HaMoked issued a report disputing the Israeli government’s claim that the pullout will “invalidate claims against Israel on its responsibility for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.” Echoing an argument that has been made elsewhere, the human rights groups insist that Israel is responsible anywhere it exerts its authority. In the case of the Gaza Strip, it says, Israel plans to “control land borders, air space, coastline and territorial waters as well as the local population’s ability to conduct central aspects of their lives.”