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The BBC's Hilary Andersson
"Israel's ultra-Orthodox party now has a martyr"
 real 56k

The BBC's David Horowitz
"Shas could yet emerge as the biggest party in Israeli politics""
 real 28k

Sunday, 3 September, 2000, 11:58 GMT 12:58 UK
Top Israeli politician goes to jail
Deri on his way to prison, surrounded by supporters
Shas has undermined Israel's traditional power structure
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews have rallied in Jerusalem in support of Aryeh Deri, former leader of the powerful Shas Party, who has started a three-year prison term for fraud.

Long lines of cars accompanied Mr Deri along the route towards Ayalon prison in central Israel, the drivers honking their support for him.


A Jewish soul cannot be imprisoned. So long as the soul continues believing in God and the Torah, it does not matter where the body is

Aryeh Deri

Hundreds more, dressed in traditional black suits, gathered outside the prison, praying for Mr Deri amid blaring music and the clatter of police helicopters overhead.

He told them he was going to jail "with a clear conscience".

Mr Deri, a former government minister, was found guilty of fraud, bribery and abuse of confidence.

His supporters say he is innocent, and was only convicted because he is a Sephardic - or non-European - Jew.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas Party has undermined Israel's power structure, traditionally dominated by Ashkenazi Jews from Europe.

Deri with Rabbi Uri Zahar at a recent rally
Deri (left) with Rabbi Uri Zahar at a recent rally

It dealt a crushing blow to Prime Minister Ehud Barak in July, when it left his Labour-led coalition in protest at his peace policies.

Shas has been the third largest party in parliament since the last elections, making Mr Deri - its founder - an influential figure in Israeli politics.

Kingmaker

"A Jewish soul cannot be imprisoned. So long as the soul continues believing in God and the Torah, it does not matter where the body is," Mr Deri said on Shas radio.

Originally from Morocco, Mr Deri founded Shas in 1984. The party has often acted as a power broker in Israeli governments, sometimes supporting the right-wing Likud, at other times Labour.

He was convicted of accepting bribes worth more than $60,000 while serving in the Interior Ministry between 1985 and1990. He stepped down as Shas leader in June.

Deri's supporters
Supporters may now see Deri as a martyr

Mr Deri has failed in two supreme court appeals against the sentence.

In the eyes of his followers, he is a populist leader who has fought for the cause of the less privileged sections of society.

The BBC's Hilary Andersson in Jerusalem says that with Mr Deri behind bars for three years, Shas will lack the leadership it once had.

However, his imprisonment may in the end strengthen his ultra-Orthodox movement, which now sees him as a martyr.

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See also:

07 Aug 00 | Middle East
Rabbi tones down Holocaust slur
12 Jul 00 | Middle East
Jail term for Shas leader
22 Jun 00 | Middle East
Shas: Breaking the Israeli mould
27 Mar 00 | Middle East
Israeli police probe religious leader
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