JERUSALEM – A rally by Gaza withdrawal opponents at a contested Jerusalem (search) holy site on Sunday ended in a fizzle, with only a few dozen protesters showing up, but it mobilized thousands of police in full riot gear.
Police arrested 31 extremist Jews who planned to demonstrate in the Old City of Jerusalem, along with a West Bank Hamas leader who spoke at the holy site, but the mass demonstration of 10,000 pledged by organizers did not materialize.
Also Sunday, Palestinians in Gaza (search) fired 70 mortars and rockets at Jewish settlements, retaliation for Israel's killing three teenagers on the Gaza Egypt border a day earlier, endangering a two-month truce. Also, there were first indications that Palestinian parliamentary elections set for July might be delayed, and work began on incorporating militants into Palestinian security forces.
Despite the low turnout, Israeli officials admitted the protesters appear to have accomplished their main goal — proving how easy it will be to divert large numbers of troops from their main mission this summer, the planned Gaza pullout.
At the center of the drama is the most sensitive and hotly disputed holy site in the Holy Land — a hilltop known as the Temple Mount to Jews and Noble Sanctuary to Muslims, where the Al Aqsa Mosque (search) compound, including the shrine marking the spot where Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven, is build over the ruins of the biblical Jewish Temples.
Clashes at the site could ignite violence all over the region, explaining the presence of 3,000 riot-ready Israeli police around the walled Old City, preparing to confront a handful of demonstrators.
Extremist Jews who make up a new group called "Revava," a biblical word for 10,000, stated openly that their goal is to storm the sensitive site in July, when thousands of Israeli police and soldiers are in Gaza to evacuate 9,000 settlers — forcing Israel's leaders to pull the forces from Gaza, send them to Jerusalem and, in that way, stop the pullout. The Sunday protest, they said, was just a test.
In anticipation of the protest, hundreds of Palestinians spent the night in the mosque compound, ready to confront Jewish demonstrators.
Hassan Yousef, a senior West Bank leader of the violent Islamic group Hamas, entered the mosque compound despite tough police restrictions, including a ban on male worshippers younger than 40 and those from the West Bank. "Al Aqsa is in danger," Yousef said. "The attempts to desecrate Al Aqsa have not ended."
Yousef was detained after he left the shrine and headed back to the West Bank, police said. He was recently released from an Israeli prison after a two-year term and has been a relatively moderate voice in the Islamic group since then.
Outside the Old City walls, hundreds of young Palestinians scuffled with baton-wielding police, some on horseback, kept them away from the shrine. Two Palestinians were hurt, one suffering a head injury after being hit by a club. Eventually, the Palestinians knelt in orderly lines on the road ringing to Old City to perform Muslim prayers.
In the West Bank, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets. In Nablus, some 3,000 Palestinians, including dozens of armed men who fired in the air, marched through the streets. In Hebron, about 1,000 Palestinians marched and chanted slogans about protecting the mosque.
Israel has stepped up security in Jerusalem recent days. Security officials say they fear hard-liners will attack the hilltop shrine. Possible scenarios include the firing of shoulder-launched missiles at the mosque.
Carmi Gilon, former head of the Shin Bet security service, said that in the event of such an attack, Israel would find itself at war with the entire Muslim world. "Of all the means ... of stopping disengagement, no doubt the Temple Mount is the doomsday weapon," he told Israel Radio.
Channel Two TV reported Sunday that police fear armed resistance to removal of four settlements from the West Bank as part of the pullout plan. Police plan to confiscate settlers' weapons and make preventive arrests, the report said.
Also Sunday, indications appeared that Palestinian parliamentary elections, set for mid-July, might be postponed, with the ruling Fatah facing a possible defeat at the hands of Hamas.
Amar Dweik, head of the Palestinian Election Commission, said he informed parliament that it needs to pass a new election law within a week if elections are to be held as planned. However, lawmakers are divided over how the representatives should be apportioned, and that could play into the hands of those who want the vote postponed.
Meanwhile, Palestinian officials began interviewing militants on Israel's fugitives list with an eye toward incorporating them into security forces.
In February, Israeli security officials identified 523 Palestinian fugitives — all but 28 in the West Bank — who Israel expects to be absorbed into the security agencies as a way of controlling them.