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The Media Line Daily News Focus

1. FORMER ISRAELI CHIEF RABBI CALLS FOR MASS DESERTION… In what is seen as a major escalation in the campaign against Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, a group of anti-pullout activists including a former chief rabbi has circulated a call for soldiers to refuse to return to their units after the Passover holiday. Because all Israeli men and women do compulsory army service at age 18, the call for desertion cuts across all segments of society. The message also addresses the next class of conscripts due to enter the army at that time. Analysts at The Media Line point out that the national debate centers not only on the trauma of the withdrawal itself, but the psychological consequences for those citizen-soldiers who would be required to forcibly remove peers from their homes. While political leftists have in the past encouraged soldiers to refuse service in post-1967 territories, a call for mass desertion is unparalleled in modern Israeli history.

2. ‘ABBAS HEADQUARTERS IN SHOOTING ATTACK; P.A. TENTS BURNED IN TUL KAREM… Six gunmen shot at Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud ‘Abbas’s Ramallah headquarters on Wednesday night. There were no injuries or damage. The shooters are said to be linked to the ruling Fatah faction, which is headed by ‘Abbas, who was in the building at the time of the incident. Early Thursday morning a mob rampaged in the Palestinian town of Tul Karem, setting fire to tents used as offices by the Palestinian Authority’s police. The rioters were protesting the shooting by P.A. police of three suspects who ran a roadblock. On Thursday, ‘Abbas ordered a crackdown on terrorists in Ramallah. In Washington, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told reporters that the Ramallah incident proves that terror threatens ‘Abbas himself and that the P.A. leader must fight harder against it. Mofaz is in the United States to tell American officials that ‘Abbas is not doing enough to fight terror.

3. ISRAELIS INJURED IN FIREBOMB ATTACK ON JERUSALEM-MODI’IN ROAD… Three Israelis were lightly injured on Wednesday night when the car in which they were traveling was hit by a firebomb and rocks on the Jerusalem-Modi’in highway. The driver slowed down when the vehicle was hit by the firebomb and was then pelted by rocks. It was the first attack along route 443 since the February cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians.

4. OUTRAGE IN ISRAEL OVER SHARON’S COSTLY PAYBACKS TO SUPPORTERS… Politicians from Israel’s political left and right are united in their outrage over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s expensive payoffs to legislators who supported his fight to pass the budget and save his administration. On Wednesday, Sharon’s office announced that the prime minister was creating three new ministerial positions for loyalists who supported him, along with seven new deputy minister spots. Sharon later withdrew the plan to appoint the three new ministers, but not because of angry criticism by legislators who accused him of “cynicism” and “corruption” for using the budget for personal payoffs after deeply slashing needed health and social service funding. Realizing he would not obtain legislative approval for creating the new portfolios he dropped that part of his plan but left in place the new deputy positions that do not require legislative approval. Sharon’s aides later said that it was just a slight delay and that he would proceed to make the three appointments one by one at a later time. Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu condemned Sharon, saying that the money he will use to pay off his loyalists “will come from other budgets, and will cut education, welfare and defense budgets.” Reuven Rivlin, once a close confidant of Sharon and presently the Speaker of the Knesset (parliament) accused Sharon of trying to “maneuver and humiliate the Knesset.” At least five leading members of the Labor Party threatened to violate coalition/party discipline and vote against the appointments had they not been withdrawn. Former minister Avraham Shochat called them “disgraceful.” Intra-party rival Uzi Landau, fired as a minister by Sharon, said the prime minister “has turned Israeli politics into a whorehouse.” Former housing minister Effie Eitam, also fired by Sharon, called on the attorney general to investigate, saying “three appointments immediately after the passage of the budget reek of political bribes for support in votes.”