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Knesset erupts into chaos as contested 'Muezzin bill' passes preliminary reading

March 8, 2017 4:39 P.M. (Updated: March 9, 2017 12:37 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed a preliminary reading of the contested “Muezzin bill” -- which seeks to impose limits on the Muslim call to prayer in Israel and in occupied East Jerusalem -- on Wednesday, with several Palestinian Knesset members being removed from the plenum, according to Israeli media.

The bill passed the reading with 55 votes in favor and 48 against, with Israel’s Jerusalem Post reporting that during the reading, the “plenum devolved into chaos.”

Palestinian MK Zuheir Bahloul, a member of the center-left Zionist Union party called the bill "a declaration of war...between sanity and racism,” against Israel’s Palestinian minority.

MK Ayman Odeh of the Joint List -- the political bloc representing parties led by Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Knesset -- was escorted out of the plenum after he stood up and ripped a copy of the bill into shreds.

Meanwhile, MK Robert Ilatov of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party shouted at Joint List MK Usama Saadi to "go back to Saudi Arabia!" The two men engaged in a shouting match which resulted in Saadi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, being removed from the room.

MK Ahmad Tibi, also of the Joint list, was also removed while giving a speech during the debate.

"Instead of honoring their customs and traditions, this is what we do? Shame," Zehava Galon, chair of the left-wing Meretz party, said, calling the debate and the bill a “fiasco.”

Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister of public security and member of the right-wing Likud party, demanded that Galon apologize for her remarks, to which she responded "first apologize for Umm al-Hiran," referring to the deadly Israeli demolition raid in the Negev-area Bedouin village in January which left a local Palestinian math teacher dead, whom Erdan initially accused of being a "terrorist."

Meanwhile, the author of the bill, MK Moti Yogev of the right-wing Jewish Home party, defended the legislation by claiming that the bill was not intended to violate religious freedoms, but rather “to benefit students and drivers, as well as the sleep cycles of citizens,” who the bill says “suffer regularly and daily from the noise caused by the call of the muezzin from mosques.”

The Muslim call to prayer -- also known as the adhan -- is broadcast five times a day from mosques or Islamic centers.

Critics of the bill have argued that the draft legislation was superfluous given existing noise regulations, and therefore could be construed as an attack specifically targeting the Muslim right to worship. The current version of the “Muezzin bill” -- referring to the men responsible for the call to prayer -- only affects the call for the Muslim dawn prayer, also known as the fajr.

Wednesday’s reading was the first of three rounds of votes that the bill must pass through before it can become law.

The bill was modified last month to prevent the use of loudspeakers by religious institutions only between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., after ultra-Orthodox Israeli Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman filed an appeal against the draft law in November out of fear that it could also affect use of sirens for the weekly Jewish call for Shabbat.

Palestinian Authority (PA) spokesman Yousif al-Mahmoud said that the bill was a violation of freedom to worship in Jerusalem, highlighting that the holy city in particular and Palestine in general had a history of respect and harmony between all residents regardless of their religious beliefs.

"It is unbelievable that the long religious and cultural history of the city is being destroyed with the stroke of a pen," al-Mahmoud added.

Mosques in Israel and East Jerusalem have already experienced backlash for the potential ban, with a mosque in al-Ludd being fined $200 in November for using loudspeakers to broadcast the call to prayer.

Adnan al-Husseini, the Palestinian Authority (PA)-appointed governor of Jerusalem, told Ma’an in November that the sound of the call to prayer didn’t rise above an agreed-upon decibel level, adding that Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem were not annoyed by the noise, but by the adhan as a reminder of Palestinian presence in the city.

Palestinian communities in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem have long been targeted by discriminatory Israeli policies, whether through “divide and conquer” tactics, attempts at forcibly displacing Bedouin communities, and what has been denounced as a policy of "Judaization" of Jerusalem at the expense of other religious communities.

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