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Israeli Group Charges Settler 'Land Grab'

Forty percent of all West Bank settlements were built on private Palestinian land and are therefore illegal, a settlement watchdog group said Tuesday, basing its claims on data provided by Israel's military.

"We are talking about an institutional land grab," said Dror Etkes, a settlement expert with the Peace Now group.

Etkes said Peace Now's claims were based on data the court ordered the military to provide. The group has forwarded the information to Attorney General Meni Mazuz, asking him to take immediate action against the illegal land seizures.

Israel claims that the settlements are built on state land and not on private property, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger.

In other developments:

  • Israel's Supreme Court has ordered the government to recognize same-sex marriages performed abroad, reports Berger. The decision sent shock waves through the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate which has a monopoly on marriage and divorce. One religious member of parliament, Moshe Gafni, said, "This is not a Jewish state, it's Sodom and Gomorrah," referring to two cities the Bible said was destroyed because their citizens were so sinful.
  • Prominent anti-Syrian Christian politician Pierre Gemayel was assassinated in a suburb of Beirut on Tuesday, his Phalange Party Voice of Lebanon radio station reported. The shooting will certainly heighten the political tension in Lebanon. Gemayel was a supporter of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, which is locked in a power struggle with pro-Syrian factions led by Hezbollah.
  • Two Italian aid workers were kidnapped in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, Palestinian officials said, the latest in a string of abductions of foreigners in the lawless area. The officials said the Italian, both employees of the Red Cross, were captured in Deir el-Balah in central Gaza.
  • The Israeli military launched a three-pronged offensive in the northern Gaza Strip early Tuesday, killing a top Hamas commander in its latest operation against Palestinian rocket squads. An elderly Palestinian woman died in a gun battle between troops and militants.
  • Palestinian rockets crashed into the Israeli town of Sderot on the Gaza border during a visit by the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour. "Suddenly, there were two loud explosions. One of those explosions was approximately 200 yards away from where we were with the high commissioner," UN spokesman Chris Gunness said. An Israeli was critically injured. Berger reports Israeli officials said it's good that the U.N. official got a first-hand look at the intolerable situation in Sderot.

    Peace Now's report singles out the two largest settlements. It says that more than 86 percent of Ma'ale Adumim, a community of 30,000 people outside Jerusalem, is built on Palestinian land, and more than 35 percent of Ariel.

    The group says that the report "demonstrates that the property rights of many Palestinians have been systematically violated in the course of settlement building."

    "We are talking about an institutional land grab," said Dror Etkes, a settlement expert with the Peace Now group.

    Emily Amrusi, a spokeswoman for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, dismissed the report.

    "There is nothing to it," she told the Jerusalem Post. "It's just another lie to attack the settlement movement."

    "In the war of Peace Now against the Jews, everything is kosher," Amrusi added.

    A government spokesman said he could not comment on the data without studying it, but said that sometimes Palestinians would sell land to Israelis but be unwilling to admit to the sale publicly because they feared retribution as collaborators.

    "I'm not sure that all the land Peace Now says is Palestinian, is Palestinian," Civil Administration spokesman Shlomo Dror said.

  • The Israeli Supreme Court's decision to recognize same sex marriage performed abroad underscores a growing rift between synagogue and state, reports Berger.

    Ultra-Orthodox Jews are furious, but gay activist Yossi Ben Ari disagrees.

    "It's a very important day for anyone that is fighting for civil rights, for liberty, for democracy," he said.

    Yossi Ben-Ari and Laurent Schuman (left) were married in Canada after that country legalized same-sex marriage in 2003. Determined, after a 21-year partnership, to enjoy all the privileges of a married couple in Israel, they were among five couples who petitioned the Supreme Court court to have their marriage registered here, too.

    "We're delighted, but the struggle is not over," Ben-Ari said.

    Moshe Negbi, a legal expert, said the court's decision is mostly symbolic because gay couples in Israel already had many of the rights of heterosexual partnerships. The significant changes are that they will now get the same tax breaks as a married couple and be able to adopt children, Negbi said.

    Israeli law stipulates a couple must be married to adopt a child.

    "The marriages of same-sex couples who marry in places like Canada where the law recognizes such marriages, will also be recognized in Israel, and they will be registered as married here," Negbi said.

    But the efforts by Israel's gay community to win approval for same-sex marriage, a key issue in the U.S. and Europe, face a major obstacle because Israel's rabbinate has a monopoly over marriage and divorce.

    Civil marriages cannot be performed in Israel because of the rabbinate's monopoly on family law. But couples married in civil ceremonies abroad have all the rights of a married couple, and their marriages are registered here. The court uses the term "register" instead of "recognition" to ward off religious criticism of the ruling, Negbi said.

    Animosity toward gays and lesbians is one of the few issues that unites Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land. They have jointly come out against gay parades in the city, and are all likely to oppose the Supreme Court ruling.

    Earlier this month, a planned gay parade in Jerusalem set off days of violence in the city's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Protesters burned trash bins and hurled stones at police, demanding the parade be canceled or moved to secular Tel Aviv.

    In the end, Jerusalem's gay community moved the event to a stadium on a university campus in Jerusalem, quelling the threats of violence and allowing 4,000 people to celebrate peacefully.

    Still, many cities in Israel have thriving gay scenes. And the Israeli military, an influential and respected institution, is banned from discriminating against gays. Homosexuals are drafted into the army for mandatory service and are given the opportunity to progress up the ranks.

    Rocket attacks in Sderot like Tuesday's are turning it into a ghost town, reports Israel's YNet news Web site. Its market and shopping centers are all but empty, as many residents have moved out to safer communities.

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