As Sharon Prepares to Meet Bush, Tensions Simmering in Israel, Gaza

On the eve of one of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s most delicate diplomatic missions, Israel has managed to keep a tight lid on tensions that threaten to boil over and ruin the Gaza Strip withdrawal. Despite a weekend that saw the killing of three Palestinian youths by Israeli troops and scuffles on the Temple Mount, Sharon took off Sunday for a meeting with President Bush.

Most observers said they did not expect recent differences involving Israel’s plan to add 3,500 new homes to the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim to get in the way of the main topic: the withdrawal from Gaza, which is slated to take place this summer.

“I have the impression that the United States has decided unequivocally to ensure that the Gaza evacuation is carried out and not to allow any other matter to overshadow, sideline or interfere with the issue,” Vice Premier Shimon Peres told Israel Radio.

But while Bush may boost Sharon’s policies at their parley Monday in Crawford, Texas, violence broke out over the weekend in the region.

A lull in Israeli-Palestinian violence ended with the killing of the three youths, who were trying to smuggle arms from Egypt into Gaza. Palestinian terror groups responded by firing scores of rockets and mortar bombs at Israeli settlements, though the only fatality was a horse.

But there was no declaration of a full return to violence, although a leader of a Palestinian terrorist group hinted that such a declaration might not be far away.

“So far, Palestinian factions have not declared an end to the calm,” a chief of Islamic Jihad told reporters. “They are studying the issue anew because of ongoing Zionist aggression.”

It was a close call. Then came Sunday, with exhortations by right-wing Israeli group Revava, or Multitude, for a Jewish march on the Temple Mount that Muslims vowed to answer with violence.

Fearing a flare-up at the nerve center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, police deployed in force, with thousands of paramilitary officers blocking non-Palestinians from reaching the mount or even the Old City.

Several hundred Revava supporters who made it to the Western Wall were incensed at their exclusion from Judaism’s holiest site. Some scuffled with police. Twenty-two were arrested.

“It is absolutely insufferable that year after year, the Israel authorities yield to the threat of violence from Muslims and do not allow Jews onto the Temple Mount,” said Arieh Eldar, a lawmaker with the right-wing National Union bloc. “Without this site, there is not the State of Israel.”

On the mount, meanwhile, a Palestinian cleric had managed to slip past police — Hassan Youssef, Hamas’ West Bank leader, who was released from an Israeli prison last year.

“We are calling on Muslims everywhere to defend Al-Aksa,” Youssef said in a sermon broadcast by Al-Jazeera, referring to the main mosque on the mount.

A Palestinian was arrested during scuffles outside the Old City with Israeli police, although the violence was far tamer than that seen previously at the site. Youssef was arrested by Israeli police while traveling back to the West Bank.

In a separate incident, Israeli right-wingers blocked the main highway outside Tel Aviv for several minutes before they were dispersed by police. Authorities credited the quick response to the protest on the Ayalon Freeway to intelligence warnings about efforts to mount spontaneous civil protests.

NEXT STORY