Latin patriarch backs moderates in Israeli election campaign

Agence France Press, March 30th 1999

JERUSALEM, March 30 (AFP) - The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, called on Israeli voters Tuesday to elect leaders who would grant "complete" independence to the Palestinians. Sabbah said in his Easter message that when Israelis go to the polls for general elections on May 17, he hoped they would choose "leaders strong enough, wise enough, open enough to guarantee security to the Israelis and complete freedom and independence to the Palestinians."

Sabbah, a Palestinian who heads the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, insisted he had no preferences among the various candidates running for the Israeli prime ministership. But his support for full Palestinian independence clearly ruled out incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud party, who fiercely opposes the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Netanyahu's main rivals, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak and Center Party chief Yitzhak Mordechai do not exclude the possibility of Palestinian statehood.

Sabbah also strongly criticized Israel for withdrawing many Palestinians' residence permits for Jerusalem, a policy he called "forced emigration" from the holy city. "It is an unjust law which decrees the withdrawal of identity cards from Palestinian residents of Jerusalem ... depriving them of their right to return to their city," he said.

Sabbah also contested an announcement by Israeli officials this month that Pope John Paul II had decided to visit the Holy Land in the year 2000, saying this was only a possibility. "The pontiff doesn't want his visit to be interpreted politically," Sabbah told a news conference referring to the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians over Jerusalem. "He wants to be a source of reconciliation and not of tensions," he said.

Israel captured Arab east Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967 and later annexed it as part of its eternal capital. The international community has never recognized the annexation and Palestinians claim the right to establish the capital of their own state in the city. Since 1967, Israel has routinely revoked the residency rights of Arab Jerusalemites who live outside the city for more than four years, even if they are city natives.

Last year the residency cards of 788 Palestinians were cancelled, according to interior ministry figures. In most cases they were forced by housing shortages to move to neighboring towns in the occupied West Bank or travelled abroad for work or study.

The loss of Jerusalem residency also deprives families of the right to enter Israel as well as access to schooling or social and medical benefits in the country.