With a big show of force around a disputed holy site, Israeli police Sunday blocked a small rally by right-wing Jews that officials had feared might ignite a new round of bloodshed.
After weeks of calm, the city was under extraordinarily tight security as 3,000 police officers set up barricades in and around Jerusalem’s walled Old City to prevent Jewish demonstrators from entering the Temple Mount, a hilltop site sacred to both Jews and Muslims that has sparked violence.
Leaders of the group calling itself Revava had hoped for a large turnout to protest the Israeli government’s planned withdrawal this summer of settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank.
But only a few dozen protesters made their way past a thick blanket of police. Authorities said 31 people were arrested, some before they had made it inside the Old City. No injuries were reported.
Police also barred four right-wing members of the parliament, or Knesset. The lawmakers, vociferous opponents of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s pullout plan, decried being kept out.
“This will not lead to calm. It will only invite the next wave of terrorism, the next round of violence,” Knesset member Uri Ariel told Israel Radio.
Israeli authorities spent days preparing for turmoil. Officials feared that the rally could provoke a violent reaction by Palestinians and shatter a conditional truce agreed to last month by Palestinian militant groups.
The massive police presence reflected Israel’s desire to prevent clashes as Sharon headed to the United States for a meeting today with President Bush. But it also demonstrated the ability of hard-liners to tie up thousands of Israeli police ahead of the planned withdrawal, which foes hope to disrupt through civil disobedience.
Palestinian groups threatened attacks if the Jewish protesters entered the mosque compound atop the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Haram al Sharif, or noble sanctuary.
Those threats picked up Saturday when Israeli troops shot and killed three Palestinian teenagers in the southern Gaza Strip near the border with Egypt. Palestinian witnesses and officials said the boys were playing soccer near the border fence when they were struck. The Israeli army said the youths were going to Egypt to smuggle weapons back into Gaza and had ignored warning shots as they crossed a no-go zone at the border. In retaliation, Palestinian militants fired more than 70 mortar shells and rockets at Jewish settlements in southern Gaza by Sunday. No casualties were reported.
To head off violence, Israeli police barred Muslim males under 40 from attending prayers Sunday at the Old City site. Officials reported a few cases of Palestinian youths throwing rocks at police outside the Old City, but the midday prayer took place without incident. The prayer drew more than 10,000 worshipers, a larger-than-normal Sunday gathering, after Muslim leaders summoned followers to defend against what they called desecration of the site by Jewish protesters. Hundreds of worshipers spent the night there.
Among the attendees was Sheik Hassan Yousef, a Hamas leader in the West Bank who had entered Israel without a permit. He was detained by Israeli authorities as he tried to return.
In the West Bank, 3,000 Palestinians in Nablus and 1,000 in Hebron took to the streets to call for protecting the mosque, Associated Press reported.
Elsewhere, Israeli activists opposed to the Gaza withdrawal blocked a highway in Tel Aviv during rush hour by setting tires afire. Activists have promised a campaign of disruptive acts to protest the pullout, scheduled to begin July 20.
There were a number of reports of rocks thrown and shots fired at Israeli vehicles in the West Bank, a departure from weeks of quiet since Palestinian militant groups agreed March 17 to hold off attacks on a conditional basis until the end of the year. No injuries were reported.
Passions around the disputed holy site have proved explosive. For Jews, it is the site of the biblical temples; for Muslims, it is where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. A visit there in September 2000 by Sharon, then Israel’s opposition leader, touched off riots that kindled 4 1/2 years of violence.
The threat of a new confrontation drew a media horde that appeared larger than the gathering of would-be demonstrators. The activists, unable to stage their rally on the Temple Mount, stood outside police barriers at its base and gave interviews.
A man in his 20s, wearing a skullcap and black T-shirt bearing the Revava logo, began to speak with a reporter -- “We’re here to demand our rights,” he said, in English -- when a policeman grabbed his upper arm and tugged. The man resisted, and several other officers jumped in to seize him.
As they wrestled him away, the little scrum was instantly captured by a herd of news photographers.