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The Israeli parliament has approved a controversial bill characterizing the country as principally a Jewish state, fuelling anger among its Arab minority.

The so-called “nation state” law says Jews have a unique right to national self-determination there and puts Hebrew above Arabic as the official language.

Arab lawmakers reacted furiously in parliament, with one waving a black flag and another ripping up the bill.

Om Benjamin Netanyahu praised the law’s passage as a “defining moment”.

He said: “A hundred and twenty-two years after [the founder of modern Zionism Theodore] Herzl made his vision known, with this law we determined the founding principle of our existence. Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, and respects the rights of all of its citizens.”

Among its 11 provisions, the Basic Law describes Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” and says the right to exercise national self-determination there is “unique to the Jewish people”.

The law also reiterates the status of Jerusalem under Israeli law, which defines the city as the “complete and united… capital of Israel”.

Controversially, the law singles out Hebrew as the “state’s language”, effectively prioritizing it above Arabic which has for decades been recognized as an official language alongside Hebrew.

Image source Wikimedia

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The law ascribes Arabic “special status” and says its standing before the law came into effect will not be harmed.

In one of its clauses, the law stresses the importance of “development of Jewish settlement as a national value”, though it is unclear whether this also alludes to settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The bill has been under discussion since it was first introduced in 2011 and has undergone multiple amendments, with the final version watering down or dropping altogether sections regarded as discriminatory.

Israel has no constitution but instead passed over time a series of Basic Laws which have constitutional status. The nation state law is the 14th such basic law.

The issue of Israel as a Jewish state has become increasingly important in recent years and a key dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Israeli prime minister has repeatedly insisted that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state in any final peace settlement. Benjamin Netanyahu argues that the Palestinians’ refusal to do so is the biggest obstacle to peace, saying it demonstrates that the Palestinians do not genuinely recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state, arguing that the Palestinians have long recognized the State of Israel and should not be expected to go further.

The law is important because it is hugely symbolic, and according to Israel’s large Arab minority, evidence that Israel is downgrading their status.

Israeli Arabs, many of whom identify as or with Palestinians, comprise about 20% of Israel’s 9 million-strong population.

Arabs have equal rights under the law but have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens and say they face discrimination and worse provision than Israeli Jews when it comes to services such as education, health and housing.

Israel is often accused by its fiercest critics of practicing a system akin to apartheid against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Israel vehemently rejects the allegation as a smear tactic used by those who reject its very right to exist.

Palestinian minister Ziad Abu Ein has died after a confrontation with Israeli troops at a protest in the West Bank.

Ziad Abu Ein had died from complications related to tear gas exposure in the incident near the village of Turmusaya, doctors said.

Several witnesses said the minister had been hit and shoved by soldiers. One said he had been hit in the chest by a tear-gas canister fired by them.

The Israeli military (IDF) said it was looking into the reports.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called for an “immediate and independent” investigation and said that reports of “excessive use of force” by Israel were “extremely worrying.”

A statement released by the IDF said its forces had “halted the progress of rioters into the civilian community of Adei-Ad using riot-dispersal means”.

“The IDF is reviewing the circumstances of the participation of Ziad Abu Ein, and his later death,” it added.

Following the incident dozens of Palestinians have gathered at the spot near Turmusaya setting fire to tires and throwing rocks at security forces, Voice of Israel radio station reported.Ziad Abu Ein death in West Bank protest

The radio also said that Israel has proposed to set up a joint team with the Palestinians to investigate the death with experts from Israel and Jordan to attend a post-mortem examination.

In recent weeks, 10 Israelis and an Ecuadorean have been killed by Palestinians in a series of attacks. Thirteen Palestinians have also been killed, among them several of the assailants.

Ziad Abu Ein, a minister without portfolio, was among dozens of foreign and Palestinian activists taking part in a protest against land confiscations.

They had planned to plant olive tree saplings on a patch of land near the Jewish settlement of Shiloh, which Palestinians believe has been earmarked for annexation by Israel.

In the course of the protest, they came into confrontation with a group of about 15 Israeli soldiers.

Leading Palestinian activist Mahmoud Aloul, who was also at the protest, told the Associated Press news agency that the soldiers had fired tear gas and had beaten some of the activists with rifle butts.

At one point, Ziad Abu Ein was hit by a tear gas canister, Mahmoud Aloul said.

The Reuters photographer said he had seen Ziad Abu Ein being struck by a hand on the neck during an altercation with two soldiers.

An AFP news agency photographer said the minister had been hit in the chest.

Photos of the incident showed Ziad Abu Ein lying unconscious before he was taken away in an ambulance. He died before reaching hospital in the nearby city of Ramallah.

There are reports that Ziad Abu Ein had a health condition that may have contributed to his death.

Condemning “the brutal assault” on Ziad Abu Ein as a “barbaric act”, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas promised to take unspecified measures and declared three days of mourning.

A senior Palestinian official said the Palestinian Authority would halt security co-ordination with Israel.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said that she was “outraged” by the minister’s death.

“It’s extremely sad that a colleague and an old friend has been killed in such a cruel way” she said.

“Ziad was guilty of nothing more than planting olive trees where Israel would uproot trees.”

Ziad Abu Ein once received the death sentence, commuted to life imprisonment, from a court in Israel for a 1979 bombing that killed two Israeli teenagers. He was released in 1985 as part of a prisoner exchange that saw the release of three Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon.

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Sweden’s PM Stefan Lofven has announced that his country will become the first long-term EU member country to recognize the state of Palestine.

Stefan Lofven said: “The conflict between Israel and Palestine can only be solved with a two-state solution.”

It should be “negotiated in accordance with international law”, he said.

Sweden last month voted out the centre-right Alliance coalition of Fredrik Reinfeldt after eight years.

That allowed the Social Democrats led by Stefan Lofven to form a government with other parties on the left including the Greens.

“A two-state solution requires mutual recognition and a will to peaceful co-existence. Sweden will therefore recognize the state of Palestine,” Stefan Lofven said on Ocotber 3, without giving a timeline for the recognition.

Sweden will join more than 130 other countries that recognize a Palestinian state.

PM Stefan Lofven has said Sweden will become the first long-term EU member country to recognize the state of Palestine

PM Stefan Lofven has said Sweden will become the first long-term EU member country to recognize the state of Palestine

Most of the EU’s 28 member states have refrained from recognizing Palestinian statehood and those that do – such as Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – did so before joining the bloc.

The Palestinians have long sought to establish an independent, sovereign state in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem as its capital, and the Gaza Strip – occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War.

Correspondents say Sweden’s move is likely to be strongly criticized by Israel and the US, who argue that an independent Palestinian state should only emerge through negotiations.

In 1988, the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat unilaterally declared a Palestinian state within the pre-June 1967 lines.

This won recognition from about 100 countries, mainly Arab, Communist and non-aligned states – several of them in Latin America.

The 1993, Oslo Accord between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel led to mutual recognition. However, two decades of on-off peace talks have since failed to produce a permanent settlement.

In 2012, the UN General Assembly voted to upgrade the status of the Palestinians to that of a “non-member observer state”.

It followed a failed bid to join the international body as a full member state in 2011 because of a lack of support in the UN Security Council.

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Pope Francis has urged for an end to the “increasingly unacceptable” Palestinian-Israeli conflict during a visit to the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

The Pope’s comments came as he met Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas as part of a three-day tour of the Middle East.

The pontiff is holding an open-air mass for 8,000 local Christians by Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.

The tour’s official purpose is to improve ties with the Orthodox Church.

Later, Pope Francis will travel to Tel Aviv and then Jerusalem where he will meet Bartholomew I, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople.

However, correspondents say Palestinians are hoping for a show of support as his visit comes just weeks after peace talks with Israel broke down.

Palestinian officials have already noted that Pope Francis is the first pontiff to travel directly to the West Bank rather than enter via Israel.

Speaking in Bethlehem on Sunday, the Pope said: “The time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable.”

Pope Francis is holding an open-air mass for 8,000 local Christians by Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity

Pope Francis is holding an open-air mass for 8,000 local Christians by Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity (photo AFP)

He talked of the “tragic consequences of the protracted conflict” and the need “to intensify efforts and initiatives” to create a stable peace – based on a two-state solution.

Pope Francis has insisted the purpose of his Middle East trip is purely religious.

However, the first speech on his arrival in Bethlehem showed that he is also willing to address pressing political issues.

On his way to Manger Square where he is holding an open-air mass, Pope Francis stopped to look at a high concrete wall that is part of the barrier Israel is building in and around the West Bank.

Israel says it is needed for security but the Palestinians see it as a land grab.

During the afternoon, Pope Francis will take a short flight to Tel Aviv where he will be formally welcomed to Israel by President Shimon Peres before flying on to Jerusalem.

Israel has issued restraining orders against several Jewish right-wing activists this week over concerns that they could try to disrupt the visit.

Twenty-six people were arrested overnight for throwing stones and bottles at police during a protest at a holy site on Mount Zion, reports say.

In Jerusalem, the Pope will commemorate the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting of Catholic and Orthodox leaders who moved to end 900 years of division between the two churches.

Pope Francis’ tour began on Saturday with a visit to Jordan.

He was welcomed by King Abdullah II. In a speech at the royal palace, he stressed the need for an “urgent” solution to the Syrian conflict.

Pope Francis praised Jordan for its “generous welcome” to Syrian refugees.

On Monday, Pope Francis is due visit the al-Aqsa mosque complex in Jerusalem’s Old City followed by the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall.

Pope Francis will be the fourth leader of the Roman Catholic Church to visit Jerusalem, after Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who went there in 2009.

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Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas have announced a reconciliation deal.

The rival factions said they will seek to form a unity government in the coming weeks.

The move comes as the peace talks between President Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel near collapse.

Hamas and Fatah split violently in 2007. Previous reconciliation agreements have never been implemented.

Israel’s prime minister said Mahmoud Abbas would have to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas.

“You can have one but not the other. I hope he chooses peace; so far he hasn’t done so,” warned Benjamin Netanyahu.

Palestinian officials responded by saying reconciliation is an internal matter and uniting Palestinian people would reinforce peace.

Fatah and Hamas have announced reconciliation deal

Fatah and Hamas have announced reconciliation deal (photo Reuters)

Mahmoud Abbas sent a delegation from his Fatah party to Gaza for reconciliation talks earlier this week.

Wednesday’s announcement was made at a news conference by representatives of Fatah and Hamas, an Islamist group designated a terrorist organization by Israel, the US and the EU.

The factions said they planned to form an interim unity government – headed by Mahmoud Abbas – within five weeks and hold parliamentary elections within six months.

“This is the good news we tell our people,” Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas-led government in Gaza, told reporters.

“The era of division is over.”

The news brought thousands of Palestinians out on to the streets of Gaza City in celebration.

Ordinary Palestinians have long hoped for an end to the split between their political leaders but previous reconciliation deals in Doha and Cairo were never implemented.

The agreement will strengthen the position of Mahmoud Abbas – whose Fatah movement dominates the Palestinian Authority, which controls parts of the West Bank – and should also make Hamas feel less isolated as it continues to face border restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt.

The two factions have been at odds since Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in 2006, ousted forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah in Gaza during clashes in 2007 and set up a rival government.

Shortly after Wednesday’s reconciliation deal was announced, five people were injured in an Israeli air strike in northern Gaza, Palestinian medics said.

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Israel has decided to cancel the release of a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said Palestinian actions had violated the terms of the release, which was part of a US-backed peace process.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has applied to 15 UN conventions, accusing Israel of backtracking on its promises.

Washington said Israel’s latest move “creates challenges”.

But White House spokesman Jay Carney said it would not deter US Secretary of State John Kerry from keeping talks between both sides going.

“There has been progress in narrowing some of the questions that have arisen as a result of the events of the last few days,” he said.

The previous three releases of Palestinian prisoners were deeply unpopular with the Israeli public

The previous three releases of Palestinian prisoners were deeply unpopular with the Israeli public

“Neither side has indicated that they want to walk away from the talks. They both indicated they want to find a way to move forward.”

Tzipi Livni was quoted as saying “new conditions were established and Israel cannot release the fourth batch of prisoners”.

She urged the Palestinians to avoid unilateral measures and return to the negotiating table, her spokesperson said.

In recent days, the US had reportedly been trying to broker a deal in which the Palestinians would agree to extend the peace talks beyond the end of April deadline in exchange for the releasing of prisoners by Israel, and the US would free Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard in return.

The previous three releases of Palestinian prisoners were deeply unpopular with the Israeli public because many of those freed had been convicted of murdering Israelis.

But the Palestinians – many of whom regard the prisoners as heroes – believed the final batch of prisoners would be freed under a US deal that got the talks started last year.

Each side blames the other for initiating that sequence of backward steps.

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Google has changed the tagline on the homepage of its Palestinian edition from “Palestinian Territories” to “Palestine”.

The change, introduced on May 1st, means google.ps now displays “Palestine” in Arabic and English under Google’s logo.

Using the word Palestine is controversial for some. Israeli policy is that the borders of a Palestinian state are yet to be agreed.

In November, the UN gave Palestine the status of “non-member observer state”.

The decision by the General Assembly was strongly opposed by Israel and the US. Previously, Palestine only had “observer entity” status.

It followed an unsuccessful Palestinian bid to join the international body as a full member state in 2011 because of a lack of support in the UN Security Council.

Google has changed the tagline on the homepage of its Palestinian edition from Palestinian Territories to Palestine

Google has changed the tagline on the homepage of its Palestinian edition from Palestinian Territories to Palestine

Palestinians in general seek recognition for the state they are trying to establish and the adoption of the name Palestine.

Israel considers any formal use of the word Palestine as pre-judging the outcome of currently stalled peace talks. In much of Israel’s official terminology the West Bank is referred to as Judea and Samaria.

Google spokesman Nathan Tyler said: “We’re changing the name <<Palestinian Territories>> to <<Palestine>> across our products. We consult a number of sources and authorities when naming countries.

“In this case, we are following the lead of the UN, Icann [the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers], ISO [International Organization for Standardization] and other international organizations.”

The Palestinian Authority (PA) welcomed Google’s decision.

“This is a step in the right direction, a timely step and one that encourages others to join in and give the right definition and name for Palestine instead of Palestinian territories,” said Dr. Sabri Saidam, advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“Most of the traffic that happens now happens in the virtual world and this means putting Palestine on the virtual map as well as on the geographic maps,” he added.

Dr. Sabri Saidam said that since the UN vote on November 29, the PA had written to international companies, including Google, asking them to replace their usage of “Palestinian Territories” with “Palestine”.

Israel has authorized the construction of 3,000 more housing units in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

It is also speeding up the processing of 1,000 planning permissions.

The Palestinian Authority has said it will not return to peace talks without a freeze in settlement building.

The decision comes a day after a vote at the UN General Assembly upgraded the Palestinians’ status at the UN to that of non-member observer state.

According to the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, some of the new units will be between Jerusalem and the settlement of Maaleh Adumim.

Plans to build settlements in the area, known as E1, are strongly opposed by Palestinians, who say the development will cut the West Bank in two, preventing the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state.

The move is a first indication of Israeli anger, less than 24 hours after the vote on Palestinian status was held at the UN.

The Palestinians may well have been expecting this – or something like it – but it is a reminder that the gulf between the two on the settlement issue remains huge.

Earlier this month, a paper by the Israeli foreign ministry described the Palestinians’ pushing for the vote as “crossing a red line that will require the harshest Israeli response”.

About 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

Earlier on Friday, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the UN vote was “negative political theatre” that would “hurt peace”.

The General Assembly voted by 138-9 to recognize the Palestinians as a non-member observer state, with 41 states abstaining.

The Palestinians can now take part in UN debates and potentially join bodies like the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said it was the “last chance to save the two-state solution” with Israel.

Two decades of on-off negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank have failed to produce a permanent settlement, with the latest round of direct negotiations breaking down in 2010.

In January, several months of indirect “proximity talks” ended without any progress.

Palestinian negotiators insist that the building of Jewish settlements on occupied land must stop before they agree to resume direct talks.

Their Israeli counterparts say there can be no preconditions.

Mahmoud Abbas was much criticized by many Palestinians for remaining on the sidelines of the conflict between the militant Hamas movement and Israel earlier this month in Gaza.