Israel Tightens Access to Holy Site

Security Officials Tighten Access to Flashpoint Site, Fearing Israeli-Palestinian Clashes


The Associated Press

Apr. 8, 2005 - Israeli security officials tightened access to a disputed holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem on Friday, wary of Jewish extremists trying to inflame tensions with Arabs in an effort to sabotage Israel's planned Gaza Strip withdrawal.

Jews opposed to the withdrawal want to rally Sunday at the site sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Haram as-Sharif. Their plans have set both Israeli police and Palestinians on edge, and Muslim prayers Friday were being watched as a potential flashpoint.

Some 40,000 Hamas supporters from the northern Gaza Strip marched after Friday prayers to protest the planned Jewish rally and warned of an immediate resumption of violence if it went ahead. Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups agreed to a temporary cease-fire during a March meeting in Cairo, Egypt, with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

"They will not be able to storm Al Aqsa Mosque, God willing, but if they do, all that has happened during the so-called quietness will disappear in the wind," said Nizar Rayan, a top Hamas official. "We will move with our rockets and our Mujahadeen in order to defend Al Aqsa and to protect it. Not only Hamas but all the Palestinians and Muslims."

In the nearby Jabaliya refugee camp, some 1,200 masked and armed Islamic Jihad members marched, also threatening war if the mosque is defiled.

On Friday, only Muslim men aged 40 and older with Israeli identity cards, and Muslim women of all ages were allowed to worship at the hilltop shrine. Thousands of police were assigned to guard the site, Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said.

Jewish presence at the site, a mosque compound built atop the ruins of the biblical Jewish temples, has been strictly limited since Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war.

Muslim leaders had said they would bring thousands of worshippers to the area, causing fears that confrontations between Muslims and Jews could erupt near the shrine. But the afternoon prayer, which drew about 10,000 worshippers, concluded without incident.

Security officials, worried that Jewish extremists would try to cause an incident at the shrine to block the withdrawal, have banned pullout opponents from rallying there Sunday, for fear it would set off Israeli-Palestinian clashes. But rally organizers say they will hold the gathering nearby.

Palestinian militants have threatened to call off a provisional truce and retaliate against Israelis if Jewish demonstrators enter the Al Aqsa Mosque compound.

A member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a group linked to the ruling Fatah faction, told The Associated Press on Friday that if Israelis try to enter, then "we will strike them, and strike at Israelis anywhere and we will strike with an iron fist." He asked that his name not be used.

Right-wing lawmaker Uri Ariel said police rejected his request to go to the Temple Mount on Sunday.

Asked if he would go without approval, Ariel replied: "We haven't decided at this point to fight with police. We think the Temple Mount should be open to Jews, and that there shouldn't be this disgraceful situation where only Arabs who threaten police and the state of Israel can go there."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the holy site when he was opposition leader in September 2000 touched off Palestinian riots that escalated into 4 1/2 years of bloodletting.

Jewish extremists say they will bring tens of thousands of people to the Temple Mount in July, when the Gaza evacuation is set to begin, forcing police to divert their attention from the pullout to Jerusalem. Sunday's rally is seen as a dry run.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said Friday his government had been in contact with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz about the rally.

"We have a pledge from the Israelis that they will prevent any aggression on Al Aqsa Mosque, and we hope so," Abbas said.

From Washington, Vice Premier Shimon Peres told Israel Radio that he requested supplemental aid from the United States in connection with the summer evacuation from Gaza. He gave no price tag.