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Warnings Rise of Temple Mount Plot, but Some Suspect a Political Agenda

If there is one thing common to many apocalyptic fantasies about the Middle East, it is that the next world war will begin with an attempt to blow up the Al-Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. This week, Israeli officials warned that they feared Jewish extremists might be planning just such an attack.

Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s minister of internal security, said in a television interview over the weekend that intelligence services fear the threat could grow as right-wingers seek to block Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan.

“There is real danger that they will want to make use of this most sensitive, most explosive and most sacred site to the Muslims to stage a terrorist attack on the site, whether in a mosque or against worshipers, and then hope that a chain reaction will lead to the collapse of the political process,” Hanegbi said.

But to Israel’s right wing, Hanegbi’s comments w! ere similar to frequent warnings from Israeli officials about Jewish extremists allegedly poised to strike: The claims, though, politically useful, are made without any substantial evidence about who the conspirators may be, how many of them there are and how advanced their supposed plans are.

In fact, Hanegbi said, “there is no information on specific people” that might blow up the Temple Mount. But, he added, “There are alarming indications that thoughts” about blowing up the mosque “are substantial, and not only philosophical.”

Leaders of Israel’s settler movement describe such a vague warning as an attempt to delegitimize their protest campaign against Sharon’s disengagement plan.

“They are simply setting the stage for preventive arrests among the so-called ‘hilltop youths,’ ” said veteran settler leader Elyakim Haetzni of Kiryat Arba, referring to young settlers who have zealously defended settlement outposts throughout the West Bank and who are the most he! ated opponents of Israeli withdrawal.

According to one unconfirmed report, unnamed “right-wing radicals” plan to stage a mega-attack on the Temple Mount, possibly by flying an airplane into Muslim worshipers during prayers.

The buildings on the mount — the Al-Aksa Mosque and the gold-topped Dome of the Rock — have attracted Jewish fanatics since the early 1980s, and blowing up these landmarks was one of the grand designs of the “Jewish underground” that operated during that period.

These Jewish terrorists also killed several students at the Islamic University of Hebron, tried to assassinate two West Bank mayors and conspired to blow up Palestinian buses.

Most of the Jewish groups who dream of rebuilding the Holy Temple on the mount say they would not resort to violence but would wait for the Messiah to miraculously destroy the Muslim shrines. Some small fringe groups, however, could be more inclined to take matters into their own hands.

Aryeh Amit, former commander of the Jerusalem police, warned over the weekend that this ! was exactly the scenario security forces fear.

“The problem does not necessarily lie in all those potential terrorists known to the security forces,” he said, “but rather in the single anonymous terrorist, unknown to the security forces.”

Some 35 years ago, an Australian Christian, Michael Dennis Rohan, set fire to part of the Al-Aksa Mosque. In 1982, Alan Goodman, an American tourist, burst onto the mount and shot at Moslem worshipers.

Hanegbi’s comments were the second time in a week that Israeli officials warned against right-wing fanatics. Last week he warned that Jews were plotting to assassinate Sharon, while Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Bet domestic security service, told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that growing numbers of far-right Jews were in favor of hurting Sharon.

“We have intelligence material about dozens of Jews who yearn for the death of the prime minister, with an additional number of 150 to 200 in the outer circle wh! o may agree to it,” he said.

The comments triggered criticism from both right and left. The left complained that Hanegbi and the government should act against potential plotters rather than talk.

“Had the plotters been Arab, they would have long been arrested,” said legislator Yossi Sarid of the Yahad Party.

Right-wingers slam such comments as a smear campaign against their political camp, noting that most suspects in a ring of alleged Jewish terrorists apprehended about two years ago have been freed for lack of evidence.

The inspector-general of the Israel Police, Shlomo Aharonishky, confirmed that security forces were considering administrative arrests of Jewish radicals. Such arrests can be made without criminal charges, and would neutralize some of the staunchest supporters of Sharon’s withdrawal plan.

“They point a finger at the hilltop youth because they want to prepare the ground for ethnic cleansing of Jews, to please the Americans,” Haetzni told JTA. “How many do they want to put in preventive arrests, all those 100,! 000 who stood in the chain today?” he asked.

He was referring to a human chain formed Sunday night from the Gaza Strip to Jerusalem to protest the disengagement plan.

A more likely target might be Yehuda Etzion, convicted when the 1980s underground movement was broken up. Etzion reportedly had developed a plan to blow up the mosque.

“I pray three times a day that 1,934 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, we shall rebuild the Third Temple on the site still controlled by the Muslim robber,” Etzion said in a recent radio interview.

He added: “Blowing up the Dome of the Rock is the right thing to do, but this is not the way to prevent the disengagement plan.”

Haetzni, a lawyer, used even stronger language.

“What Prime Minister Ariel Sharon does on the eve of Tisha B’Av is the actual destruction of the Third Temple,” he said. “There are hundreds of thousands of people who feel that if Sharon carries out his plan, this will actually be the de! struction of the” Jewish national home.

Haetzni charged that Haneg bi’s warning could ignite a firestorm among the Arabs. Palestinian and Israeli Arab leaders long have tried to rile up their people with unfounded claims that Israeli officials are scheming to blow up the Al-Aksa Mosque.

As a case in point, Haetzni mentioned a statement Sunday by Adnan Husseini, head of the Muslim religious trust that administers the Temple Mount.

“If they make a problem, we shall solve the problem,” Husseini said about Jewish extremists. “This is a very sensitive place and we are getting to a point of a very dangerous situation.”

Paradoxically, it was Husseini who last year agreed that Jewish visitors would be allowed back to the Temple Mount. The area had been closed to non-Muslims after the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000. The mount is the holiest site in Judaism, but Palestinian officials deny that the area has any significance to Jews.

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