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What Christians of the Arab world are facing this Easter

From the church bombings in Egypt to the restrictions on movement in Palestine to an exodus from Iraq, Christians of most Middle Eastern countries are at serious risk.

By James J. Zogby

This year there will no Easter celebrations for Coptic Christians in Upper Egypt. Out of concern for their security and out of respect for the 45 Christians who were victims of two horrific suicide bombing attacks on Palm Sunday, their bishop declared that Easter services would be limited in his diocese to mass, “without any festivities.”

That Holy Week began for Egyptians with news of those bombings served as a powerful reminder of the threats faced not only by Egypt’s Copts but by other Christian communities in the Arab World.

It is only in Lebanon where, both because of their numbers and the unique characteristics of that country’s political system, Christians live in relative security. But in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, or Palestine, 2000 year-old Christian communities are at risk.

The situation in Palestine is unique. There, Christians and Muslims alike, are being strangled by the harsh Israeli occupation. They’ve lost land, livelihood, and the freedom of movement. This Holy Week, for example, only with great difficulty will Christians from Bethlehem, Bir Zeit, or Ramallah be able to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to walk the Stations of the Cross or to pray at the Church of the Sepulcher. Many Palestinians can see Jerusalem from their homes, but they are separated from the city by a 28-foot wall, restrictions imposed by occupation forces, and humiliating checkpoints. As a result of these near unbearable hardships, many Palestinian Christians have emigrated to the West causing a precipitous decline in their presence in the Holy Land.

The situation faced by Christians in Iraq and Syria is quite a different story.

In Iraq, the remnants of that country’s once thriving Christian church live in fear. Americans who only recently discovered Iraq’s ancient churches, do not realize that before the Bush Administration’s disastrous 2003 invasion, there were 1.3 millions in Iraq. Despite assuming some religious trappings, Saddam Hussein’s ruthless dictatorship was secular and, therefore, provided Christians some degree of religious freedom.

One result of the U.S. invasion that overthrew Saddam’s regime and the dismantling of Iraq’s state apparatus was to unleash a civil war of armed sectarian militias, a feature of which was the “ethnic cleansing” of entire neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia Muslims...

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Israel's online pot market lights up as decriminalization looms

In the wake of an Israeli government vote to decriminalize the recreational use of marijuana, an enterprising legalization activist has created a virtual marketplace for buyers and sellers of cannabis.

By Yael Marom

Whether they’re after skunk, White Widow or Lemon Haze, Israelis can now purchase the cannabis of their choice with about as much ease as any other kind of plant. In the days following the Israeli government’s vote to move to decriminalize recreational marijuana use, thousands of Israelis joined so-called “Telegrass” groups on the Telegram messaging app, initiated by activists who been campaigning for legalization. Cannabis merchants can, through these groups, openly sell their wares to the Israeli public for the first time.

There are still some technical issues, some lingering fears, and a lot of sensitivity among users of the service, but that hasn’t stopped increasing numbers of people from joining “Telegrass,” which runs 24 hours a day.

About a year ago, Amos Dov Silver — who launched “Telegrass” — decided to use his Facebook page to connect buyers and sellers of marijuana. Silver, whose years-long battle for legalization saw him playing cat-and-mouse with the authorities and going through arrests and release, now lives in California. When the number of responses on his Facebook page started to grow, Silver came up with a new method, suggesting to sellers that they open fictional Facebook accounts and offer their goods from there, while tagging him in their posts.

Buyers were now able to find sellers, and sellers could verify their customers’ identities through their own Facebook profiles. Silver makes no profit from these sales, but he still makes sure to check the identity of the sellers who tag him, in an effort to confirm — as far as possible — that they’re not scamming their buyers, whether through theft or the quantity or quality of their goods.

This small venture quickly grew. “After the first seller came the second, then the third and fourth,” Silver says. “Today there are around 20 sellers active on a daily basis, and a similar number who are slightly less active.” But each seller who tagged him had their own questions and issues, and Silver recently decided to try and professionalize, developing another business model in which the sellers would manage themselves.

So at the end of March he published a Facebook post announcing that buyers and sellers could now...

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The endgame lurking behind Netanyahu's new settlement policy

Netanyahu’s new settlement policy doesn’t just pave the way for massive construction in the West Bank — it also, with the blessing of a right-wing U.S. president, risks freezing Palestinians out of the diplomatic process entirely.

By Mitchell Plitnick

On March 30, the Israeli government announced that it had approved the first new settlement in 20 years. The new settlement is part of the government’s compensation package to the settlers of the recently evacuated outpost named Amona. The Israeli courts had ordered the demolition of this illegally built settlement for the first-time way back in 2006. This February, Amona was finally removed.

But despite the controversy over the new settlement, it’s not actually the first new one in 20 years. True, it’s the first settlement in that time that the government publicly planned and did not claim to be part of an existing settlement. But in that period, outposts that were ostensibly illegal under Israeli law have become legal when they declared themselves part of an existing settlement somewhere in the same general area. More recently, outposts have been legalized retroactively under a new law. So, this is the “first new settlement” only in the most technical, and largely meaningless, sense.

More important are the steps that both the Israeli and US governments are taking in the wake of the Israeli announcement. These are the real indicators of the policy taking shape in the discussions between the Trump and Netanyahu governments.

At a meeting last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet that Israel would adopt a new policy for settlement expansion to mollify the US administration. This policy would have four points:

1) Israel will build in “previously developed areas.”

2) Where such construction is not permitted, Israel will allow expansion in areas adjacent to the developed areas.

3) “Where neither of these criteria are met, due to legal, security or topographical constraints, Israel will allow construction on the closest land possible to developed areas.”

4) Israel will not allow the creation of any new illegal outposts.

This is what Netanyahu presents as a policy of restraint. In fact, however, the policy amounts to unrestrained growth. As Hagit Ofran of Peace Now points out, “If it’s permissible to build in the built-up area, adjacent to it and close to it – then, in practice, it’s possible to build everywhere.” But...

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When remembering the Sabbath day enables settler violence

Settler violence on the Sabbath is not uncommon in the West Bank: Israeli civilians feel emboldened to attack Palestinians, knowing that law enforcement will refrain from taking serious action until the following week. 

By Yossi Gurvitz, for Yesh Din

They came riding on a horse, two Israeli civilians armed with firearms. One of them jumped off, drew a box cutter, and informed the Palestinian shepherd, B., that “this is our land.” As if to prove the point, he added that he would kill the sheep as well. The two Israelis began throwing stones at the animals, killing one of them with a direct hit to the head. The herd began running away in panic, and B. saw two of them falling down, their legs broken. One of the attackers began hitting sheep in the eyes with a stick.

The place: Khirbet Tel Al Hime, Tubas Region, Jordan Valley. The date: February 17, 2017. Khirbet Tel Al Hime is a small enclosure located some 250 meters west of Road 90, the major north-to-south highway in Israel-Palestine that runs through the West Bank. Around 30 people, all of them from the Ayoub family, live there, and have been living there since 1962.

Until the last few months, say the residents, they had few problems, and none with settlers — though the army did demolish some of their tents from time to time. They shepherded their flock and made cheese from the milk, selling it in the nearby town of Tubas. There is no infrastructure in place, and even the water has to be delivered in tanks from another town. But, all in all, the residents say it wasn’t bad.

All this changed in September 2016. The army raided the enclosure and demolished it. Almost at the same time, a new Israeli outpost was built nearby. Experience tells us that outposts built “accidentally” and without coordination with the Israeli authorities do not survive. So far, this new outpost is still standing.

One suspects we see the old method, the one described in Yesh Din’s The Road to Dispossession report, in action: first, the army allows Israelis to take over land, then turns a blind eye when they use ideological violence against Palestinians, all of which is part of an attempt to push them into despair...

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When shooting a teen in the back is a 'professional error'

An IDF brigade commander shot a Palestinian teen who threw a rock at his jeep, while the boy was running away, and then left him bleeding on the road. Initially, the colonel claimed his life was in danger. With each subsequent interrogation, the story changed. The military police determined the incident was a ‘professional error’ –  bad aim – and closed the case despite evidence that tells a very different story.

By John Brown* and Noam Rotem

On July 3, 2015, Col. Yisrael Shomer, then-commander of the IDF’s Binyamin Brigade, was driving towards the Qalandiya checkpoint in the West Bank. Mohammad al-Kasbeh, a 17 year-old Palestinian, threw a large rock at the windshield of Shomer’s vehicle, and started to flee. The Binyamin Brigade commander stepped out of the car, fired two bullets into the back of the fleeing boy, and left him wounded and bleeding on the ground without offering any help. Kasbeh died from his wounds. The military police file was closed with no indictment filed, and Col. Shomer was promoted to commander of the IDF’s Southern Command.

Now, for the first time, our investigation reveals that a subordinate soldier who was with Shomer at the time of the shooting testified to Military Police investigators that neither man was in immediate danger, and that his commander failed to follow the protocol for arresting suspects. Furthermore, while Shomer claimed that the boy was holding an object, the soldier testified that that the boy held nothing. Video analysis of the incident, made possible by these testimonies, also showed that the entire shooting was documented, and contradicts Shomer’s claim that he fired in the air.

What follows is a review of the Military Police’s file, the changing versions of the officer’s testimony (especially after B’Tselem released video footage documenting the shooting), the contradictory testimonies of the soldiers who were with Shomer that day, and the decision of the Military Advocate General (MAG) not to file an indictment against the IDF colonel.

Last month, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) filed an appeal to the High Court of Justice demanding that the army prosecute Shomer for murder, or at least negligent manslaughter. The appeal is based on the military’s own investigation file, reviewed in this article, and the crux of the argument is that Col. Shomer was not in mortal danger when he fired into the boy’s back.