Mideast Report

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Voicing their opposition to expanded autonomy in the West Bank, a group of Israeli reserve officers and soldiers has announced its members would not show up for reserve duty.

Reserve Capt. Danny Hoffman, the informal spokesman for the group, called the redeployment of Israeli troops from West Bank population centers under the interim agreement "an immoral order."

"We are a group of officers and soldiers, about 10 people at the moment, who want to serve in the army by defending the state of Israel," Hoffman told the daily newspaper Yediot Achronot.

In a letter to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the group said it would no longer serve in the reserves because the army's job is to help build the country, "not to be the trustee over a collapsing national concern."

An IDF spokesman responded, saying that refusal to do reserve duty was against the law.

Government and opposition members alike criticized the group's stand.

Greek Orthodox award peacemakers

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem is giving a newly established peace award to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Jordan's King Hussein and Prince Hassan, and Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat.

The medals of the Golden Medal of Peace Award are to be given by the ancient Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, according to Metropolitan Timothy, secretary of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.

Church sources say this is the first time the Jerusalem Patriarchate is to extend such an honor to someone outside the Greek Orthodox community.

Rabin addresses 5,000 Christians

JERUSALEM (JTA) — More than 5,000 Christian supporters of Israel gathered Monday at Jerusalem's International Conference Center for the International Christian Embassy's annual Feast of Tabernacles Assembly, where they were addressed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The event, which the Tourism Ministry has described as the largest single annual event in Israel's tourist calendar, gathered participants from 90 countries, including Egypt and Lebanon. A record-number contingent of some 700 people arrived from Brazil, and there were over 100 from Papua New Guinea.

"The feast is an overwhelming display of friendship and support on many levels," said International Christian Embassy director Johann Juckoff. "These include economic, spiritual, political and diplomatic assistance around the world, including many places where no official Israeli representatives exist."

On Sunday, some 4,000 of the participants attended a picnic at the Qumran Caves, where they viewed a sound and light show devoted to King David's establishment of Jerusalem as his capital. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert were scheduled to address the group as well.

Israeli army pullout officially under way

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli army redeployment in rural areas of the West Bank began Tuesday, with the handing over of the civil administration office in the Samarian village of Salfit.

Civil administration facilities in Yatta (near Hebron), Kabatiya (near Jenin), and Kharbata (near Ramallah) are to be handed over in ceremonies today marking the Israel Defense Force's departure from these villages.

Salfit Mayor Hassan Azir greeted civil administration officials and soldiers at the handover ceremony, at which most civilian authority was transferred to the Palestinian Authority.

The IDF will continue patrolling Salfit, which is among 460 villages for whose security Israel is still responsible under the interim peace agreement, Bar-El said.

As Palestinians watched the departure of army trucks carrying equipment, a banner someone hoisted proclaimed, "Today Salfit, tomorrow Jerusalem."