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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.

al-Aqsa mosque

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 Arab legislators denounced the measure as racist.

Supporters of the bill say it is aimed at improving the quality of life for people living near mosques who have been losing 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.

Opponents say the legislation, sponsored by right-wing parties, impinges on the religious freedom of Israel's Muslim minority. 

"You are committing a racist act," said Ahmed Tibi, an Arab lawmaker, told supporters of the legislation.

The two versions of the legislation were approved after a heated discussion that turned into shouting matches between ruling coalition members and Arab MPs, some of whom tore up copies of the bill and were ejected from the Knesset's chamber.

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.

The proposed law refers in general terms to "houses of worship", but it has been dubbed the "muezzin law" by the Israeli media, referring to the man who chants the Muslim call to prayer.

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

Different views

Tzipi Livni, a leader of the centre-left Zionist Union party and a former foreign minister, said "proud Israelis" should join together in opposing legislation that would only "spread hate and ignite tensions" between Muslims and Jews.

Arabs make up almost 20 percent of the population and have long complained of discrimination.

Israel has said it is committed to protecting the religious rights of all faiths and battling discrimination against its Arab citizens. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparked outrage during a 2015 election when he urged his supporters to go to the polls because Arabs were "voting in droves".

Under the proposed law, 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.

But since the measure covers only residential areas, al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third holiest site and located in a religious compound in Jerusalem's walled Old City, would be exempt, Reuters added.


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