Israel issues clampdown on Temple Mount

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The Independent Online
THE worshippers who trudged down Chain Street, in Jerusalem's Old City yesterday, after Ramadan prayers at the al-Aqsa mosque, kept their eyes on the ground, never glancing at the scores of police lined up on either side or at the soldiers on the roofs above. The Israeli forces were waiting for signs of revenge. Gas masks dangled from the policemen's arms and fingers twitched on white truncheons and holsters.

Palestinian blood was spilt in Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs last Friday. But, as the Israeli security forces know only too well, nowhere in the Holy Land are piety and bloodshed more closely linked than here on the Haram al-Sharif, known to the Jews as the Temple Mount. For centuries Jews and Muslims have struggled for supremacy, and on the flagstones of the Haram echoes the sound of Jews praying at the Wailing Wall, the remnant of their Second Temple, directly below.

Here in 1990, in the 'Temple Mount massacre', 18 Muslims were shot dead by border police. Yesterday was the last Friday before the end of Ramadan, a day when normally 250,000 Muslims answer the call to prayer from al-Aqsa, Islam's third-holiest site.

At the corner of the Via Dolorosa at least 30 soldiers watched and waited. On the Mameluke domes, the square shapes of bullet-proof vests were silhouetted against the sun. Israeli guards peered out at the worshippers, many kneeling below the newly golden Dome of the Rock, restored by King Hussein of Jordan as a shining message to Israel and the world that Islam claims a permanent presence in Jerusalem.

Perhaps 50 soldiers and policemen sat on the steps at Damascus Gate, another 50 near St Anne's crusader church at St Stephen's Gate. The Holy Sanctuary was under Israeli siege, the likes of which had not been seen since the 1967 Arab- Israeli war, when Israel seized the Old City.

Altogether there were 1,500 police and probably twice as many soldiers in the narrow streets, scouring the face of every Muslim for signs of anger, while armed Jewish settlers walked on past, heading for their fortress homes taken over from Arabs in the Muslim quarter.

But Arab anger was not in the air in the Old City yesterday. The worshippers were mostly elderly, for the under-40s had been told they would be barred from entry. 'There is nothing but sadness, depression today,' said Rabah, a teacher, leaving the mosque. 'The Imam (prayer leader) talked only about the need for peace, for us to help each other, to help the wounded of Hebron and the families of the beareaved. Revenge is not in our nature.'

The numbers able to reach the Haram yesterday were few, perhaps only 25,000 in all. A cordon has been thrown around the Israeli-occupied territories since the Hebron massacre, and most of the 2 million Palestinians who live there have been barred from movement by curfews. As a result, only Palestinains living in East Jerusaelm could attend the prayers.

Beside the Wailing Wall, directly below the Haram al-Sharif, Jewish worshippers faced restrictions, too. For an hour no Jew was allowed to pray there. Last Friday, Palestinians on the Haram had pelted praying Jews below with stones. 'The right to life,' said Rafi Peled, the Israeli police chief, standing in front of the Wailing Wall, 'is more important than the right to pray.' Mr Peled was content that his security operation had apparently paid off: no violence was reported in the Old City yesterday. 'We are using the same tools against both sides,' he said.

The Jewish worshippers around him voiced anger. 'We do not endanger the Arabs. They endanger us. The most important principle for a Jew is to be able to pray,' said Sinai Levy, aged 22.