Israel seals off shrine to foil Jewish march

JERUSALEM - Thousands of Israeli police sealed off a flashpoint shrine in Jerusalem on Sunday to foil a march by ultranationalist Jews that Palestinian militants had warned could scupper their ceasefire.

Israel banned the march by Jews bent on derailing Israel’s plan to pull settlers out of Gaza. Scuffles broke out as police blocked approaches to the site revered by Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and Jews as Temple Mount.

Only a few hundred adherents of the rightist Revava ("Multitude") movement had shown up by midday for a march organizers said would draw 10,000 to a site at the heart of the Middle East conflict and the scene of bloodshed in the past.

About a dozen people were arrested amid brief disturbances in which protesters shouted "Gestapo" at police and one officer was injured by a thrown rock.

"We came here to show the world we are unable to pray even at our holiest place, the Temple Mount," said Jewish protester Efraim Cohen, 21, a West Bank settler.

"But if (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon thinks it will be as easy to expel Jews from Gaza as he has dealt with us today, he is mistaken.

The struggle will continue," he said, before being hustled away by police.

Palestinians barred from the shrine because they were under 40 years old also scuffled with police on horseback at an Old City gate before being driven back, witnesses said. Israel barred Palestinian men under 40 from the shrine on Sunday to try to minimize the risk of violence.

The Jerusalem compound, housing the 1,300-year-old al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques, is Islam’s third holiest site.

The site is the most sacred for Jews, treasured as the spot where biblical King Solomon built a temple and where a second temple was razed by the Romans in 70 A.D.

Palestinian militants threatened to abandon a de facto ceasefire with Israel if the march went ahead.

"If the Zionists defile al-Aqsa mosque, they will be planting the seeds of the third uprising," said Nizar Rayyan of the Islamic militant group Hamas.

Police kept protesters away from the Western Wall, a Jewish prayer site abutting the elevated mosque compound, to avoid any possible clash with Muslims praying there.

"Given assessments that such a move on the Temple Mount may spark a flare-up and disturbances from worshippers there, this (decision) is final and non-negotiable," Jerusalem police chief Ilan Franco told Army Radio.

GAZA KILLINGS STOKE TENSION

US-led mediators regard the Gaza "disengagement" as a catalyst to starting talks on a long-stalled "road map" peace plan for a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Any eruption of violence could complicate the Gaza pullout due to begin in July and trouble a meeting between Sharon and George W. Bush at the US president’s Texas ranch on Monday.

Tensions had already resurged on Saturday when Israeli troops shot dead three Palestinian youths in a Gaza boundary zone, the first killings since militants agreed with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in March to the truce.

Militants retaliated by firing several dozen mortar bombs and rockets at Jewish settlements and Israeli army bases. Two rockets were launched toward the town of Sderot on Israel’s border with Gaza. No casualties were reported.

Despite the barrage, Hamas and another leading militant group, Islamic Jihad, said they remained committed to the truce.

Hassan Youssef, Hamas’s political leader in the West Bank, slipped into the Jerusalem shrine on Sunday to demonstrate resolve against the Jewish rightists. Sources close to Youssef said he got past Israeli police disguised as an elderly cleric.

"I did not wait for a permit from the (Israeli) occupation. All Palestinians should come here to protect al-Aqsa from desecration by Jewish extremists," Youssef told Reuters by telephone. But he urged Palestinians to eschew violence.

Other Jewish ultranationalists opposed to the Gaza plan blocked a major highway with burning tires at rush hour on Sunday but were dispersed within minutes, Israeli police said.

Palestinians launched a revolt in 2000 after Sharon, then Israeli opposition leader, toured the hilltop Jerusalem shrine. Israelis say Palestinian militants planned violence in advance.

- REUTERS

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