Threat to Jerusalem Holy Site Keeps Israeli Security Chiefs on Edge
15 Oct 2004
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By Karin Laub
THE camera scans the holy terrain, the domed mosques and people strolling along a tree-shaded plaza. It zooms in on a group of foreigners who turn out, after a few mouse clicks, to be visiting US security chiefs on a guided tour of the hilltop revered by both Muslims and Jews.
In an Israeli police station at the Jaffa Gate into the Old City, in front of TV screens picking up images from 280 cameras scattered across the densely populated heart of Jerusalem, a 24-hour watch goes on for stirrings of apocalypse.
Police have stepped up surveillance in recent weeks, amid fears that as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict nears a critical juncture, the sacred hilltop with its two mosques, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, will become the ultimate flash point for disaster.
Israel's security chiefs are wrestling with two nightmare scenarios they say are increasingly realistic - an attack on the mosques by Jewish extremists trying to stop Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and a collapse of parts of the structurally shaky mosque compound onto thousands of Muslim worshippers.
Muslims would almost certainly blame either catastrophe on the Israeli government and transform its conflict with the Arabs into a full-blown religious war.
In recent weeks, police have increased patrols at the Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques and undercover agents are shadowing well-known militants.
However, security officials say a lone assailant not on anyone's watch list - someone, perhaps, like the Jewish nationalist who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 - could easily slip through their net. One of their greatest fears is a shoulder-held missile fired from one of the alleys near the holy places.
Lately, with hard-liners increasingly desperate to stop Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal plan, the warnings have reached an unusually high pitch.
Israel is sitting on a "keg of nitroglycerin," said Carmi Gillon, a former chief of Shin Bet, the secret service. The agency has held top-level meetings on what it describes as a threat to Israel's existence. Its director, Avi Dichter, who rarely speaks in public, has said everyone should be losing sleep.
Adding to the anxiety, Israel's police minister, Gideon Ezra, says the eastern wall of the compound is in danger of collapse after an earth tremor in February worsened existing structural damage.
Muslim keepers of the shrine, as well as Jordanian experts, deny Ezra's assessment, while leaders of Israel's Islamic movement have urged followers to rally in defence of the mosques.
Israeli security officials say they don't have concrete leads on a plot to harm the mosques. However, given the beating they took for failing to head off Rabin's assassination, they clearly don't want to seem complacent.
Opponents of the withdrawal accuse the government of trying to paint them as wild extremists. "There is no doubt that as we get closer to the evacuation, there will be greater attempts to delegitimise the right," said Pinchas Wallerstein, a leader of Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
But Israeli authorities say the motivation is powerful, the mosques are vulnerable and the threat is at an unprecedented level.
Even Tzahi Hanegbi, a staunch opponent of withdrawal, has joined the chorus. In July, while still serving as Sharon's police minister, he said the threat to the shrine from Jewish extremists is "greater than it has ever been."
Some of those fighting against withdrawal believe Sharon is defying God's will by giving up parts of what they see as the Promised Land.
Baruch Marzel, a well-known extremist living in the West Bank, said Sharon must be stopped at any price.
"We are sitting and thinking and planning and will find all possible ways to respond," said Marzel, refusing to elaborate. "We are talking about danger to life, to our nation ... Certainly the saving of lives is above the law."
In light of new threats, Jerusalem police chief Ilan Franco has ordered more patrols around the Temple Mount. Some 700 officers, including regular police, paramilitary border troops and undercover forces, are regularly assigned to the Old City.
However, the overall security effort appears still focused on Palestinians rather than on Jews. The cameras were installed not to protect the mosques but for Pope John Paul II's visit in 2000, and at the Old City police station, no single camera is trained on the shrine at all times; officers flip from camera to camera, zooming in when they spot something suspicious.
Police spokesman Gil Kleiman acknowledges that the cameras are mostly to deter crime, such as pick-pocketing of pilgrims, and attacks on Jews by Palestinians. But he denies police are fixated on Palestinians. "The Temple Mount is a very sensitive area, and the Israeli police is very aware of that," he said.
The mosque compound straddles the fault line of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Israel captured it when it overran Arab east Jerusalem in the 1967 war, and, recognising its sensitivity, left it under administration of the Islamic Trust, with Israeli police in overall charge of security. Helping to keep the peace was a rabbinical warning to Jews that their presence in the compound might defile Jewish holy ground.
But to devout Jews the site of Jerusalem's great Jewish temple remains a powerful symbol. Sharon's visit there in 2000, before he was prime minister, set off the violence that presaged the present intefadeh, or uprising. And it is a tempting target for those hoping to change history with a single act.
In 1969, an Australian Christian fundamentalist set fire to Al Aqsa and caused extensive damage, saying he wanted to clear the way for rebuilding the temple.
An Israeli court ruled him insane. In 1982, an Israeli reserve soldier from the United States opened fire on the Dome of the Rock, the golden-capped mosque opposite Al Aqsa, killing two Palestinians and wounding nine.
Two years later, the Shin Bet caught Jewish extremists who had amassed large amounts of army explosives to blow up the Dome of the Rock.
Yoel Lerner, 63, was one of the militants imprisoned for that plot. Now free and living in Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter, he says he has disavowed violence but thinks Sharon's withdrawal plan might spur others into action.
Lerner said destroying the mosques isn't simple, and that a rocket might do only limited damage. Large amounts of explosives could work, "and I don't see that happening very soon," he said. - Nampa-AP