Netanyahu backs law to ban loudspeakers at mosques across Israel

Cabinet split over Bill that would prevent Muslims from being called to prayer

Jerusalem

A highly contentious Bill which threatens to inflame Arab religious and ethnic sensitivities in Israel by clamping down on mosques using loudspeakers for the call to prayer has split the Cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Netanyahu expressed sympathy this week for the principle behind the Bill, promoted by Anastasia Michaeli, a Knesset member in the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party led by the Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

Ms Michaeli's so-called muezzin Bill would actually ban the use of such loudspeakers in any place of worship, but is clearly directed at mosques used by Israel's mainly Muslim million-plus Arab minority. She has said the Bill comes from "a world view whereby freedom of religion should not be a factor in undermining quality of life".

The Bill is believed to be the first attempt to impose change on calls to worship from mosques since the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. This week, Mr Netanyahu postponed discussion of the measure in the key ministerial committee on legislation after it ran into stiff opposition from three prominent ministers in his own Likud Party: Dan Meridor, a Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Eitan, and Limor Livnat. All three argued that it would unnecessarily escalate tensions.

But Mr Netanyahu made it clear that he wanted the issue addressed, saying in reference to curbs in Belgium and France, where officials have imposed bans on street prayer, that "there is no need to be more liberal than Europe".

The Bill, or a version of it, may be put before the ministerial committee next week.

The measure is part of a recent wave of legislation proposed by the Knesset targeting Arabs and leftist groups. Avi Dichter, a prominent member of the centrist Kadima Party, has drawn up a Bill which would effectively downgrade Arabic as an official language,

One of the most contentious Bills, whose principle was supported by Mr Netanyahu, is aimed at clamping down on foreign government funding of Israeli human rights organisations.

The Prime Minister has put the latter Bill on hold for "careful consideration" after a wave of international protests against it, including from the British government.

But Mr Netanyahu told his Likud ministers this week that he had received "numerous complaints from people who are bothered by the noise from the mosques". The mayor of Upper Nazareth, the Jewish town which borders the northern Israeli-Arab city of Nazareth expressed support for action at a meeting of the wider Likud faction yesterday.

The Bill has outraged Arab religious authorities, with the former mufti of Jerusalem, Ekrima Sabri, asking yesterday: "How could Israel change something which Muslims have been practising for the last 15 centuries in Jerusalem and Palestine and everywhere?"

The present mufti, Muhammad Hussein, has suggested that the move is part of a "programmed policy" which he says is in line with a recent spate of attacks on mosques by vandals from Jewish settlements.

Ms Livnat, the most surprising of dissenting Israeli ministers since she is normally seen as a member of the party's hard right, is arguing that existing noise pollution legislation should be enforced in cases of local complaints about the volume of the muezzin's call to prayer.

That approach would mirror Britain's, where the volume of the Muslim call to prayer is subject to limits drawn up by noise pollution legislation, though it is most often enforced only in the case of specific complaints.

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