- - Wednesday, January 18, 2017

IKSAL, Israel — In this Galilean village three miles south of Nazareth, the muezzins’ chants from atop three mosques are as much a part of the landscape as the olive groves that ring the town.

“It’s not a noise,” said Mohammad Darawshe, a 53-year-old Iksal resident who lives about 500 yards from the city’s largest mosque, a poured concrete structure whose domed, blue-tile top serves as the village’s dominating landmark. “It’s been part of the scene here for 1,400 years.”

A muezzin, a Muslim cleric, traditionally climbed the steps of the mosque’s minaret five times a day to call the faithful to prayer. Since the 1930s, the call usually has come from a microphone conveniently located on the mosque’s ground floor and hooked up to loudspeakers at the top of the tower.

But the amplification of Arabic chants has provided a legal opening for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s parliamentary coalition to weigh stiffer penalties for noise coming from “places of worship” — creating yet another point of grievance and tension for Israel’s Arab minority.

“I cannot count the times — they are simply too numerous — that citizens have turned to me from all parts of Israeli society, from all religions, with complaints about the noise and suffering caused them by the excessive noise coming to them from the public address systems of houses of prayer,” Mr. Netanyahu said late last year when he proposed the law.

But, like many other of the nearly 1.5 million Muslim citizens of the Jewish state, Mr. Darawshe believes the noise bill unfairly singles out the loudspeakers atop the country’s more than 400 mosques. It’s another measure aimed at chipping away at Arab religious, cultural and political expression to strengthen the Jewishness of the Jewish state, he said.

“It’s a very serious and ideologically motivated attempt to Judaize the public space in Israel by reducing any other presence and trying to pressure the Muslim citizens to behavior patterns that suit the majority,” said Mr. Darawshe, who works as director of planning, equality and shared society at the Givat Haviva Institute, an Israeli nonprofit dedicated to Jewish-Arab coexistence.

The law’s prohibition of loudspeakers between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. effectively prohibits Islam’s pre-dawn Fajr prayer call as well as special chants sung from the minarets during the monthlong Ramadan religious holiday. A draft of the bill said infractions would incur fines as high as $2,600.

An Israeli government official denied that the law discriminated against Muslims.

“The purpose of the law is to curb the extreme noise emanating from these mosques, and there is no other consideration involved,” said the government official, speaking on background.

Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters also say the government does not get the credit it deserves in other areas to ease Israeli-Arab tensions, including efforts to boost Arab student enrollment in Israeli universities and a major five-year funding law to stimulate development and encourage integration in Arab-majority areas.

Israel is committed to freedom of religion, but it must also protect citizens from the noise,” Mr. Netanyahu told reporters last month.

Delaying a vote

Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party and his coalition partners from smaller right-wing nationalist and Orthodox Jewish parties have a 14-vote majority in the Knesset, so the law likely has the support it needs to pass.

But lawmakers have repeatedly postponed a final vote. Jordanian officials who oversee Muslim shrines in Jerusalem have raised objections, and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah has threatened to escalate its diplomatic campaign against Israel at the United Nations should the bill become law.

“I think the international attention, including global media coverage of this discriminatory law, is the only serious break on this discriminatory legislation,” said Tamar Zandberg, a lawmaker from the small liberal Meretz Party.

Israeli media have reported that the prime minister is pushing for the legislation at the urging of his 25-year-old son, Yair, who has complained about the chanting from a mosque in Jisr al-Zarqa, an Arab town close to the Netanyahu family residence in the affluent coastal town of Caesarea.

Neighbors in Caesarea question those accounts, however.

“I have lived here since 1987, just a block from Bibi and the Netanyahus, and I have never known them to be in the least interested in what goes on here,” said Leann Sandler, a Caesarea lawyer. “The sound of the muezzin has never bothered me. Actually, I kind of like it because it reminds me where I am.”

Steve Banks, an optometrist in Caesarea, said the five daily calls to prayer are loud and sometimes disturb his slumber as early as 5 a.m.

“During their various festivals, they have prayers which are broadcast live very loudly and go on for hours on end,” said Mr. Banks, a British immigrant to Israel. “There is a problem with the volume of their prayers and how it impacts on our daily lives.”

Moussa Abou Ramadan, a Muslim scholar who lives in Jaffa, said he finds its humorous that some Israelis are moving to his neighborhood to live in an “authentic” Middle Eastern atmosphere that includes Ottoman-era architecture, Palestinian bakeries and muezzin calls, even while others are seeking to quiet the chants.

“My Jewish neighbors aren’t complaining and, as a technical matter, there exists plenty of local legislation against noise even without this law,” said Mr. Abou Ramadan. “I think Netanyahu wants to pass this to show the Israeli right-wing electorate that he is combative and anti-Islamic. It goes together with other laws that make it tough for Arabs to build homes and subject our representatives to exclusion from the parliament.”

Last year, the Knesset approved a measure allowing lawmakers to eject any member if 90 others agree that the offending parliamentarian questioned Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. And a series of measures have kept Israeli Arabs from building on their privately held property even as the government expropriates land for the construction of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territory captured during the 1967 war.

Mr. Darawshe makes the case more forcefully.

“Since Netanyahu’s election in 2009, 26 anti-Arab, anti-democratic laws have been passed by his right-wing coalition, including the closure of 400 towns in which Arab citizens cannot live because these communities have established selection committees determining who is allowed to buy houses,” he said. “This week, he demolished 11 Arab homes [in the Israeli Arab town of Qalansawe], sending 11 Arab families out in the open in the middle of the winter.”

Those measures have helped Mr. Netanyahu attract Jewish voters who support hard-line policies against Arabs, but they also have stoked tensions in Israel that perpetuate the cycle of violence that Jewish and Arab Israelis want to end, Mr. Darawshe said.

“That is the new Jewish hero who says he doesn’t want to hear the voice of the mosque,” he said.

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