News Analysis: with Tension Rising in Israel, Police Warn of Extremist Danger

With peace negotiators discussing Israeli concessions on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount against a background of continuing Palestinian violence, Israeli security officials are keeping a wary eye on Jewish extremists.

The officials warn that Israel’s far right could engage in vigilante retaliation for Palestinian violence, which has resulted in almost daily attacks on Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the ambush slaying of a prominent right-wing extremist on Dec. 31.

In a worst-case scenario, officials warn, an attack against Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount could spark an Islamic crusade drawing legions of faithful from as far as Indonesia, setting in motion a veritable Armageddon.

“This could threaten the very existence of Israel,” said Assaf Hefetz, the former inspector-general of Israel’s police.

Hefetz, along with Carmi Gillon, a former head of the Shin Bet domestic security service, sent a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Barak over the weekend warning of the threat extremist Jewish groups may pose to the Temple Mount – - and, by extension, to Israel’s security.

These groups cannot be dismissed as marginal, said Hefetz, who estimated that their numbers have “doubled and even tripled” since Palestinian violence against Israel erupted more than three months ago.

Yizhar Be’er, director general of the Keshev Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel, which specializes in monitoring extremist groups, estimated this week that their membership has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade.

Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s minister for Israeli society and world Jewish communities, said Sunday that the extremist threat to the Temple Mount must be taken seriously.

“There is nothing more sensitive than the Temple Mount,” he said. “It can be the gate to heaven, but it can also be the gate to hell.”

Melchior offered the comment after the Keshev Center sent Barak a detailed report over the weekend on the activities of far-right groups.

The warnings surfaced after Israel’s Chief Rabbinical Council — which includes the two chief rabbis and the rabbis of Israel’s major cities — issued a ruling last week prohibiting Israeli officials from ceding sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians.

Sovereignty over the Temple Mount “belongs to the people of Israel, so even discussing it would be a desecration of God’s name,” the council ruled.

The council was reacting to reports that Barak supports a U.S. peace plan under which Israel would cede the Temple Mount to Palestinian control.

The government is not bound by the council’s ruling, but Barak nevertheless assured the council that he would not allow the Palestinians to control the Temple Mount. He did not rule out placing it under the control of some third party, however.

Ehud Sprinzak, a political scientist at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliyah and an expert on the radical right, said the prospects of a Jewish attack on the Mount are slim.

While many Israelis are mobilizing against giving up the Temple Mount – - Monday’s 300,000-strong demonstration against Israeli concessions in Jerusalem is just one example — few people support vigilante action, Sprinzak said.

“Prospects that such action will be taken at this time are small, since everyone who deals with the issue understands that the chance for an agreement on the Temple Mount is very slim,” Sprinzak said.

Still, Israeli officials worry that Jewish extremists could use the Rabbinical Council ruling to justify almost any act.

Israel’s radical right has been galvanized by the uncompromising stand Palestinian officials and clerics have taken regarding Arab rights to the Temple Mount.

Palestinian officials routinely deny any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount. On Monday, the Palestinian Authority’s chief Islamic cleric issued a religious ruling declaring the entire Temple Mount area holy land for Islam.

Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Ikrima Sabri said the Temple Mount is holy to Muslims from “seven levels above and seven levels below” the mount’s surface.

His comments flew in the face of a proposed U.S.-brokered compromise under which the Palestinians would control the surface of the man-made plateau while Israel would control the land below, where the remains of the ancient Jewish temples are believed to lie.

Jewish radicals also were outraged after Palestinian gunmen on Dec. 31 killed Binyamin Kahane — son of the late militant Rabbi Meir Kahane — in what has become an almost daily ritual of Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilian vehicles. Kahane’s wife, Talia, also died in the attack, and five of the couple’s six young children were injured.

As one long-time activist, Noam Federman, said, “The murder has proven our long-time argument that there will not be peace and quiet for Jews until there are no more Arabs here.”

For years, the radical right remained very much in the shadow of Israel’s “conservative” or “national” right, which includes several political parties and the mainstream settler movement.

At last week’s funeral for the Kahanes, however, mourners erupted in fury.

An estimated 20,000 people took part in the funeral procession, with some of them rampaging through Jerusalem stores in search of Arab workers and attacking members of the media, which they perceive as secular and left-wing.

The procession also stopped opposite Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s official residence, where mourners denounced Barak’s negotiating stance and called him a murderer.

Ten policemen were injured during the violence.

Binyamin Kahane’s movement — Kahane Chai, Hebrew for Kahane Lives — was declared illegal in 1992, but its leaders now speak openly of taking revenge for last month’s slayings.

For years, the Kahanist ideology — which calls for transferring Arabs out of Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and governing Israel according to Jewish religious law — seemed too far on the fringe to be relevant.

Now, in the super-charged atmosphere surrounding proposed Israeli concessions and the violent Palestinian uprising, officials are taking the Kahanists’ threats seriously.

More than a few groups call for building a Jewish Temple to replace the Islamic holy sites now on the Temple Mount.

Such organizations draw up maps, reconstruct Temple implements from biblical descriptions and debate how to revive the custom of sacrifices in a rebuilt Temple.

The basic assumption behind all their work is that there will no longer be an Arab presence on the Temple Mount. Many of these groups reject violence, however, believing that when the Messiah arrives, the mosque on the Temple Mount will somehow vanish and the Muslims will help build the Jewish Temple.

For decades, the Temple Mount has been the subject of messianic dreams.

A Jewish underground movement uncovered in the early 1980s had plans to destroy the Islamic shrines there. Right- wing activist Shimon Barda was caught in 1983 with a bag of explosives on the Temple Mount, just minutes before he could carry out a plan to demolish the mosques.

A group called the Temple Mount Faithful periodically tries to enter the site. Activists argue that Israel’s guarantee of religious freedom means that Jews should be able to pray at their holiest site, but police routinely block their entry for fear of angering Muslim worshippers.

Other right-wing Jewish activists ascend the Temple Mount daily, with police and guards from the Muslim religious trust monitoring them closely to make sure they do not pray. If they appear to be moving their lips in prayer, they are hustled off the Mount.

One does not necessarily need explosives to set the area alight, however.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, an activist with Kach — the outlawed anti-Arab group founded by Meir Kahane — said a plan is being prepared for thousands of Jews to march on the Temple Mount.

“Police will be unable to face the masses,” he warned.

Leading rabbis are not sitting idly by as such threats are issued.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, the rabbi of the Western Wall, urged rabbis of all denominations to tell their congregations that it is absolutely forbidden to damage the mosques on the Temple Mount.

“One must state as clearly as possible that this is not the way of Judaism, and that the action of extremists can jeopardize 2,000 years of prayers at the Western Wall,” he said.

Rabinovich warned that a single fanatic could bring “horrible things to us.”

Asked whether it was possible that anyone would take such action, Rabinovich said that before the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, “we also did not believe that someone would take such an action and then justify it in the name of religion.”

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