Muting mosque bill gets initial thumbs up in Israel

Racism accusations as legislation to muffle calls to prayer in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem wins first backing.

Last Ramadan Friday prayers in Jerusalem
Since the muting measure covers only residential areas, al-Aqsa mosque would be exempt [EPA]

A law to muffle mosques’ amplified calls to prayer in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem won preliminary approval on Wednesday in a charged parliamentary session where Palestinian legislators denounced the measure as racist.

The bill passed a preliminary reading with 55 votes in favour and 48 against as the assembly broke out into chaotic arguments. 

Zuheir Bahloul, a Palestinian member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, called the bill “a declaration of war… between sanity and racism” against Israel’s Palestinian minority.

Palestinian lawmaker Ahmed Tibi told supporters of the legislation they were “committing a racist act”. 

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Ayman Odeh, a member of the Joint List – a political bloc of parties representing Israel’s Palestinian minorities – was escorted out of the assembly hall after he stood up and ripped a copy of the bill into pieces. 

Supporters of the bill say it is aimed at improving the quality of life for people living near mosques who say they have lost sleep with the early morning calls through loudspeakers mounted on minarets.

“This is a social-minded law that aims to protect citizens’ sleep, without, God-forbid, harming anyone’s religious faith,” said legislator Motti Yogev, one of the bill’s sponsors.

But critics of the bill say its legislation is redundant due to existing noise regulations, and that it was a clearly designed to further infringe on the basic rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, the majority of whom are Muslim.

Najwan Berekdar, a human rights activist from the city of Nazareth, told Al Jazeera the bill was “yet another racist bill targeting Palestinians”.

“But unlike any of the other laws that infringe on our basic rights, this law specifically targets Muslims.”

International condemnation

Jordan and Turkey separately condemned the bill on Thursday. 

Mohammed Momani, a spokesman for Jordan’s government, said the 1994 peace treaty includes a “clear clause” obliging Israel to “respect” Jordan’s role in taking care of Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem.

“This legislation represents a breach of this legal obligation in the peace treaty,” Momani said. “It also implies discrimination.”

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Mehmet Gormez, head of Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs, said the bill was “unacceptable”, adding that Muslims in Jerusalem would read the call to prayer together, in defiance. 

An estimated 1.7 million Palestinians – comprising Christians, Muslims and Druze – carry Israeli citizenship and live in cities, towns and villages across the country. They make up nearly 20 percent of Israel’s population. 

According to the Adalah Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, more than 50 laws discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel by stifling their political expression and limiting their access to state resources.

‘Muezzin bill’

Israeli politicians have said the country is committed to protecting the religious rights of all faiths and battling discrimination against its Palestinian citizens.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparked outrage during a 2015 election when he urged his supporters to go to the polls because Palestinians were “voting in droves”.

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The two versions of the legislation were approved after a heated discussion that turned into shouting matches between ruling coalition members and Palestinian MPs.

The second of the versions approved on Wednesday would ban use of loudspeakers by mosques in residential areas between certain hours.

The proposed law will have to be reconciled later in the legislative process, with three more readings required before becoming law.

Dubbed by local media as the “Muezzin bill” – a reference to the men who give the call to prayer five times a day – the law would only affect the call to prayer at dawn, known as the fajr.

Authorities could impose a 10,000 shekel ($2,700) fine for violations.

Under the proposed law, occupied East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move that is not recognised internationally, would be included in the ban.

The bill, which covers only residential areas, would exclude the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site and located in a compound in Jerusalem’s walled Old City.

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Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies