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Newsdesk January 16, 2004

Arabs Debate Reform

Islamists and nationalist opposition leaders in Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are trying to block government educational reforms directed mainly at revamping textbooks. Challenges to educational reform are particularly overt in Jordan, where the political system and media are more open and government critics more outspoken than in the Gulf.

“Nationalists and Islamists are criticizing the Jordanian government, saying that this is an attempt to impose Western values in Jordan and that it’s an American-driven plot,” said Amy Hawthorne, editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.

Critics are accusing Jordan’s government of sneaking the reform through, behind the back of parliament, to avoid public scrutiny and out of shame at bowing to American pressure. One of the main concerns of opposition leaders in Jordan is the government’s intention to make a distinction in its curricula between terrorism and legitimate “resistance.”

Jordanian officials are vowing to push forward with the reforms. Meanwhile, the Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-member coordinating body of Arab Gulf states, last month approved a resolution to combat terrorism, which calls for the deletion of anti-Christian and antisemitic references from school textbooks. The group, which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, decided to remove from school textbooks material describing followers of other religions as “infidels” and “enemies of Islam.”

Bush Proposes School Fund

President Bush has announced his intention to ask Congress to establish a “national choice incentive fund” to encourage school-choice programs. Supporters of the $50 million fund say that a major objective of the fund would be to help school districts address their capacity problems by providing low-income parents with expanded opportunities for transferring children to high-performing public, private or charter schools.

The Orthodox Union applauded the president’s announcement, commending Bush for his “commitment to improving America’s educational system for all children.” Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, criticized Bush’s proposal, saying, “We believe that religious education should be paid for by the members of the sponsoring denomination, not by the American taxpayer.”

Liberty Attack Debated

A historian affiliated with the National Security Agency said Monday that recently declassified documents “strongly suggest” that an NSA intelligence-gathering ship, the USS Liberty, was not intentionally attacked by Israel in 1967.

The NSA’s official historian, David Hatch, told participants at a conference in Washington that the documents “to me, suggest strongly that the Israeli attackers did not know that they were aiming deadly fire at a vessel belonging to the United States.”

Hatch pointed to recently released intercepts of radio transmissions between Israeli helicopters and their home base in Hatzor. These intercepts, acquired by an American spy plane shortly after the attack, show a “progressive reversal of perception” on the part of the pilots, Hatch said. “At first, the pilots were to inspect an Egyptian ship, then signs that the ship might not be Egyptian after all, and finally growing evidence that it could belong to a friendly nation.”

A State Department study, issued Monday, reached a similar conclusion, according to the report’s author, Harriett Schwar, who works in the department’s Office of the Historian.

The conference was organized by the State Department to mark the release of Schwar’s report, the third in a trilogy on America’s approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict during the Johnson administration. The first panel of the two-day conference was devoted to the Liberty tragedy. It drew extraordinary media interest and sparked emotional charges of cover-up and deceit from survivors of the Liberty attack in attendance.

The USS Liberty, an American intelligence ship, was attacked June 8, 1967, the third day of the Six-Day War, by Israeli rockets, cannon fire and torpedoes while in international waters near the town of El Arish in the Sinai Desert. Thirty-four American servicemen were killed and 171 injured. Israel said the attack was a tragic result of mistaken identity — Israeli pilots and seamen thought the ship was an Egyptian vessel, Israel’s government said.

Rabbis Protest Housing Demolitions

Rabbis for Human Rights-North America delivered a letter signed by 300 rabbis to the Israel’s embassy in Washington and consulate in New York blasting the upcoming trial of Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of the group’s Israeli chapter, for trying to block demolitions of Palestinian homes in the West Bank last spring. The rabbis, who span the denominational spectrum, want the changes dropped because they say the demolition policy violates Jewish ethics and Zionist ideals.

Hamas Enlists Woman Bomber

A female suicide bomber blew herself up early Wednesday at one of the entrances to the Gaza Strip’s main crossing point to Israel, killing three Israeli soldiers and an Israeli civilian.

Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant group affiliated with Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, jointly claimed responsibility for the blast at the Erez crossing, which also wounded 12 people.

Vowing to escalate attacks, Hamas said it used a woman suicide bomber for the first time, in order to counter Israeli security precautions.

Saudi Kills Jewish Friend

A Saudi Arabian national in Houston pleaded guilty to slashing a Jewish friend’s throat after undergoing a religious awakening. Mohammed Ali Alayed, 23, faces up to 60 years in jail after the August 6 attack on Ariel Sellouk, 23, the Houston Chronicle reported Monday. Houston police did not find a religious motive for the slaying.

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