Israel foils missile plot; protesters block roads
JERUSALEM -- Three Jewish extremists planned to fire a missile into Islam's third-holiest shrine in hopes of unleashing mayhem across the Middle East and halting Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank this summer, police said Monday.
Officials admitted that hard evidence in the case was weak, but other opponents of the pullout showed Monday that even small numbers of demonstrators can tie up police throughout Israel, blocking main highways with burning tires and their own bodies. More than 235 people were detained, police said.
The Cabinet and parliament repeatedly have approved the pullout plan, driving opponents to desperate measures to stop it. Many are driven by messianic religious beliefs, rejecting the right of a temporal government to overturn their view of the West Bank and Gaza as land promised to the Jews by God.
According to police, the suspects said they planned to commit suicide after firing an anti-tank missile at the holy site in Jerusalem and throwing grenades at police who would try to arrest them.
Extremist Jews are organizing to stop the pullout at all cost, security officials warn. Possible scenarios are an attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, violent resistance to the pullout itself, disruptions throughout the country and an attack on the disputed holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
Muslims revere the site as the place were Muhammad ascended to heaven. To Jews, it's the location of the biblical Temples, destroyed 20 centuries ago.
Even small events there have escalated into bloodshed. The current round of Palestinian-Israeli violence began after Sharon, then the parliamentary opposition leader, made a demonstrative visit to the hilltop in September 2000.
Israeli police and officials said Monday they interrogated three extremist Jews who planned to purchase a missile from criminals and fire it at the Dome of the Rock, the ancient gold-topped shrine on the same plaza as the Al Aqsa Mosque.
Adnan Husseini, director of the Islamic Trust, which administers the mosque compound, warned that any harm to the site would shake the Middle East.
"The only one who will bear responsibility for such an explosion is the Israeli government and the Israeli police," he said.
Israel took control of the hilltop compound in the 1967 Mideast war but turned day-to-day administration back to Muslim authorities because of the site's sensitivity.
The plot apparently did not progress past the stage of discussion. No missile was purchased, no concrete plans were made and authorities did not have enough evidence against the three to go beyond ordering house arrest for a short time last month before releasing them.
Israel's Justice Ministry said the suspects would not be indicted because there was no evidence they carried out any part of the plot, and they had second thoughts about it even before they were detained.
Naftali Wirtzburger, attorney for the three, said his clients never served in the army and have no idea how to fire a missile. He accused security forces of entrapment.
"They sent an agent to stir them up and try to encourage them to commit a crime," he said.
Pullout opponents attracted large numbers of police Monday with their road blocks, a dry run for tactics meant to divert police and soldiers from implementing the removal of 21 Jewish settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank.
Security agencies insist they are ready with contingency plans to handle the diversions, even charting detours through cities to avoid burning tires.
In Jerusalem, police pulled flaming tires off a key road with crowbars, and in other places, they hauled the protesters themselves off the roads.
At the northern entrance to Jerusalem, two tires burned in the middle of the road, forcing motorists to slow down and drive on sidewalks to pass the tires and billowing black smoke.
Protester Shlomo Sternberg, waving a flag, believed the pullout would be canceled.
"I am sure that we will not see that dark, evil day the prime minister and government are planning," he told Channel Two TV.
Irate motorists shouted at demonstrators, and a TV station showed one man punching a protester blocking the highway.
Also, Israeli officials said construction would begin this month on a section of the separation barrier that effectively annexes the largest West Bank settlement to Jewish Jerusalem and cuts off the Arab section.
The new segment of the separation barrier would put the Maaleh Adumim settlement, with more than 30,000 residents, on the "Israeli" side. Israel says the barrier is necessary to keep suicide bombers out, but Palestinians call it a land grab.
Israel already is building sections of the planned 425-mile barrier elsewhere on Jerusalem's outskirts. Once the barrier rings the entire city, it would cut off eastern Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital, from its West Bank hinterland.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia denounced the plan, calling it "a time bomb in the way of the peace process."