Arab and Jewish hecklers target Laura Bush on visit

Laura Bush, America's first lady, was treated to a lesson in the strident realities of Middle Eastern street politics, as both Arab and Jewish protestors heckled her during a visit to Jerusalem's holiest sites.

The White House had hoped a visit by Mrs Bush, whose political stock has never been higher in Washington, would help assuage anti-American sentiment in the region, but the locals are not soothed that easily.

As she was touring Al Aqsa mosque, Islam's third holiest shrine, and the neighbouring Dome of the Rock, two members of the radical Islamic Liberation Party shouted: "You are not welcome here. How dare you come here? You kill Muslims." Israeli police closed ranks around her, keeping them at bay and forcing back a gang of Palestinian youths trying to reach Mrs Bush, who had been welcomed to the site by Adnan Husseini, its Muslim custodian.

Although the visit was billed as non-political, the protesters took the opportunity to register their anger at the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and what they see as its continuing war on Islam. "If the police hadn't stepped in," a Palestinian employee of the US consulate-general told The Independent, "there would have been a massacre. The Muslim officials didn't do anything to stop the protesters. If they'd got any closer, the American security men would have shot them." Mrs Bush remained poised and unflappable. "She took things in stride," a US spokesman confided.

Earlier at the Western Wall, below Al Aqsa, about 40 Jewish hecklers demanded the release of Jonathan Pollard, a researcher in American naval intelligence who has served 20 years of a life sentence for passing classified information to Israel.

While Mrs Bush followed Jewish tradition and placed a prayer note in the wall, the last remnant of the Temple destroyed by the Romans AD70, her bodyguards manhandled the protesters, who were chanting: "Free Pollard now!" She was also greeted by cries of "Pollard, the people are with you" outside the Israeli President's residence, where she was received by the President's wife, Gila Katsav, and met a group of prominent Israeli women.

The two first ladies went together to the Western Wall, Mrs Bush with her head covered in a demure black mantilla, her hostess draped in a white scarf.

The Pollard case has become a rallying point for Israeli and American Jewish right wingers, who contend that the naval spy has served far longer than others convicted of similar security breaches.

Mrs Bush crossed into the West Bank yesterday afternoon, where she met eight Palestinian women, led by Hind Houri, a minister without portfolio, and Hanan Ashrawi, a legislator, human rights advocate and spokeswoman for the Palestinian cause.

After returning to Jerusalem, she visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, before concluding her tour at a church in the Israeli Arab village of Abu Ghosh.

Mrs Bush arrived in Israel from Jordan, where she addressed a World Economic Forum conference on the Middle East on the shore of the Dead Sea. She pulled no punches with the male chauvinists of the Arab states. Calling for greater voting rights for women, she warned 1,300 international business and political leaders: "Women who have not yet won these rights are watching. They are calling on the consciences of their countrymen, making it clear that if the right to vote is to have any meaning, it cannot be limited to men only.

"Freedom, especially freedom for women, is more than the absence of oppression. It's the right to speak and vote and worship freely. Human rights require the rights of women."

Reuters reported that she received polite applause in a conference room that was far from full. In Israel, too, the Laura charm offensive generated little excitement. The media was preoccupied with the rumblings of new violence in Gaza, the rift between the Foreign Minister, Silvan Shalom, and his ambassador to Washington, Danny Ayalon, and Israel's fourth place in the Eurovision Song Contest.

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