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The minaret of a mosque is seen in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Beit Safafa in Jerusalem March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

(reuters_tickers)

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - 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 of people living near mosques who have been losing sleep. The calls usually begin sounding a little before 5 A.M. through loudspeakers mounted on minarets

Opponents say the legislation, sponsored by right-wing parties, impinges on the religious freedom of Israel's Muslim minority. Arabs make up almost 20 percent of the population and have long complained of discrimination.

Two versions of law won initial approval and will go to committee for further discussion before any final vote in parliament, in what could be a lengthy process.

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

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.

One of the bills would ban a summons to worship via loudspeakers between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. That would effectively mute one of the five daily calls emanating from mosques. The second proposal would bar amplification in residential areas at all hours and impose a 10,000 shekel ($2,700) fine for violations.

"This is a social-minded law that aims to protect citizens' sleep, without, God-forbid, harming anyone's religious faith," legislator Motti Yogev, one of the bill's sponsors, said during a debate punctuated by shouting matches between the bill's backers and detractors.

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.

During the heated debate, Arab legislator Ayman Odeh rose from his seat, with a copy of the bill in his hands. "This law will not be implemented, I am tearing it up," he said, as pieces of paper fell to the floor. He was ejected from the chamber.

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.

($1 = 3.6845 shekels)

(Editing by Maayan Lubell, Larry King)

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