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The Media Line Daily News Focus

1. ISRAEL TARGETS GAZA TOWN TO STOP FIRING OF ROCKETS… In its latest effort to prevent the firing of Qassam rockets into Israeli communities, the Israeli army – including troops, tanks and bulldozers — encircled the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun on Wednesday morning, tearing up the surrounding roads and apparently digging in for a prolonged stay. Israel’s strategy until now was to launch periodic raids in attempt to locate and destroy the homemade Palestinian rockets. Wednesday’s action is a change of policy. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said on Tuesday night that his forces would remain as long as necessary to prevent missile attacks such as the one that killed a man and a 4-year old boy in the Israeli town of Sderot on Monday. In response to a question about Israel’s ability to prevent such attacks after it unilaterally withdraws from the Gaza Strip, Mofaz was less than optimistic about the pullout’s anticipated effect on terror. He said only that, “The chances that terror will diminish after the disengagement exist.”

2. BUSH TO MUSLIM NATIONS: ‘EMBRACE DEMOCRACY’… U.S. President George W. Bush admitted that the long-held policy of supporting Middle Eastern dictators in order to maintain regional stability was a bad idea. Speaking in Istanbul at the end of a five-day visit to Europe and Turkey, Bush said that, “it did not serve the people of the Middle East to betray their hope of freedom and it has not made Western nations more secure to ignore the cycle of dictatorship and extremism.”

3. LEGAL, NOT PHYSICAL, CUSTODY OF SADDAM HUSSEIN PASSES TO IRAQIS ON WEDNESDAY… Custody of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein passes from the Americans to the Iraqis on Wednesday. But the transfer consists of legal authority and not physical possession of Hussein himself. On Thursday, charges will be filed in a special court that has been established by the new Iraqi government for the specific purpose of trying Saddam and eleven of his closest subordinates. The change of status brings with it new rights for the infamous detainee and his cohorts. He ceases to be a prisoner of war, and in becoming a defendant in an Iraqi court he will be entitled to legal counsel for the first time. Saddam will remain under guard – and the protection of – American forces.

4. ANNAN WANTS ISRAEL TO MATCH GAZA PLAN IN WEST BANK… Speaking at a news conference in the Qatari capital of Doha, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said that Israel must match its planned Gaza withdrawal with similar moves in other post-1967 areas. Saying that the planned unilateral pullout by Israel “could help break the current stalemate, if it is carried out in the right way,” Annan added that Israel “must transfer full authority and control to the Palestinians and it should be accompanied by similar steps in the West Bank.”

5. CLINTON’S LATEST MIDDLE EAST ACHIEVEMENT: UNITING NETANYAHU AND BARAK… Four years after leaving office, former President Bill Clinton has scored a new achievement in the Middle East: he has united former Israeli prime ministers Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. Both Israelis are denying Clinton’s accounts in his new book of their positions in regard to negotiations with Syria. Netanyahu insists Clinton’s assertion that he was prepared to relinquish the entire Golan Heights in return for a peace deal is untrue. Clinton also said that Syria was willing at one point to accept a border running 50 meters east of the Sea of Galilee rather than at the shoreline as it had prior to the 1967 War. Barak insisted that Clinton has it wrong. “Every time I asked the administration if Syria adopted that position, the answer was crystal clear – it did not,” he said.