Jerusalem on high alert as 2000 nears

Boston Globe, Dec 14, 1999
By Charles M. Sennott

JERUSALEM - Police surveillance cameras constantly monitor the Temple Mount, where Judaism's Second Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. and which today is the site of the al-Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest shrines in Islam. Other video cameras discreetly survey the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the site where tradition holds Jesus was crucified and buried, where up to 20,000 pilgrims will soon pack daily into a Crusader-era edifice that has just one exit.

In all, some 400 cameras are keeping watch on the winding, cobblestone pathways of Jerusalem's Old City, scanning unblinkingly for everything from pickpockets to deranged religious pilgrims bent on carrying out bizarre interpretations of biblical prophecies of apocalypse. As the millennial celebrations near, security concerns are weighing heavily on this ancient city, and the state of Israel is straining to keep an eye on the Holy Land as it prepares to welcome an unprecedented influx of pilgrims and tourists.

In the days leading up to Christmas and New Year's Eve, Israeli security officials have prepared for the worst possible scenarios, the scariest of which would be an attack aimed at destroying the Dome of the Rock, another holy landmark atop Temple Mount, which Muslims call Haram al-Sharif. Religious specialists said that could be a goal for either Christian or Jewish extremists, and security officials said a mere attempt could touch off widescale religious violence, even a new Middle East war. ''I am afraid of Jerusalem,'' said Major General Aryeh Amit, a former Jerusalem district commander of police who participated in some of the security planning. ''I am frightened of what can happen in this crazy city.''

Michael Weil, the city's chief consultant on strategic planning for the celebrations of the year 2000, said, ''We've never done an undertaking this enormous before.''

Weil, who is troubleshooting millennial events for the municipality from a ''situation room'' that opened yesterday in the basement of Jerusalem City Hall, added, ''The complexity is absolutely mind boggling... Frankly, it will be very difficult to keep control of it all.''

Israeli security officials are opening three police stations and two control centers designed to coordinate police and emergency services in a year in which Israel is expecting 3.2 million tourists, 50 percent more than the previous record year of 1995.

From the ''situation room'' where Weil operates, officials are monitoring the flow of traffic in and around a city that will be more clogged than ever with tour buses and pedestrians all pushing toward the same holy sites.

At an ''operations control center,'' a team of security analysts will monitor the 400 hidden video cameras and serve as the command center in the event of emergencies or violence.

Much of the focus is on the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe the prophet Mohammed ascended into heaven. The ornate 7th century mosque, with its gleaming golden dome, sits atop a patch of land supported by the Western Wall that once surrounded the Second Temple, the site where tradition holds that Abraham was called upon to sacrifice his son. The Western Wall is the most sacred site of the Jewish faith.

There are extremist circles - both Christian and Jewish - that believe the mosques on Temple Mount must be destroyed in order to rebuild the temple and prepare the way for the messiah, or the return of Jesus Christ, who will come to trigger the biblical day of judgment. The fear is that an extremist group will try to hasten things along by blowing up the Muslim shrines. It is not a far-fetched notion. An attempt by a messianic Jewish extremist in the mid-1980s was narrowly thwarted. In 1969, an Australian Christian provoked Muslim riots after a failed attempt to burn the mosque. The FBI has started ''Project Meggido,'' referring to the biblical site of Armeggedon, to monitor threats of millennial violence worldwide. In October, an FBI report concluded that, ''A simple act of desecration, or even a perceived desecration of any of the holy sites on the Temple Mount, is likely to trigger a violent reaction.''

''The Temple Mount is clearly one of the most sensitive areas,'' said Israeli Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. As an additional precaution, he said, 400 extra police will be put on duty to watch for end-of-the-world extremists.

In a strange confluence of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim calendars, Dec. 31 is not only the eve of New Year's Day, 2000. Because it happens to fall on a Friday, it will also be the Jewish Sabbath, as well as the festive end of the Muslim holy month Ramadan, which could bring as many as 300,000 Muslims to for traditional prayers.

''We are all aware this will not be an easy moment. It will be a great challenge,'' said Ben-Ami.

An Israeli task force formed for the event has been working in coordination with the FBI. Its most publicized action to date was a crackdown last January on a Denver-based sect known as Concerned Christians, whose leader predicted he would die on the streets of Jerusalem and be resurrected. Police raided two suburban Jerusalem homes where the group was residing, arrested 14 people, and charged that the group was preparing to blow up some of the city's mosques. The Concerned Christians denied involvement in any plot.

Another operation was quietly targeting a street preacher who wears a long gray beard and calls himself Elijah. For nearly a decade, he had been wandering the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming himself a Biblical prophet, and over time he gathered a small following who saw him as one of the ''two witnesses'' mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Most recently, the task force moved against Brother David, a Christian evangelical preacher from Albany, N.Y., who led a following of a few dozen believers gathered regularly on the Mount of Olives. Brother David's interpretation of the Bible's Book of Revelation led him and his followers to believe that the world is fast approaching the ''End of Days.'' In the prophecies in Revelation, this is the time when Jesus Christ will return to establish his kingdom on earth and to judge the living and the dead. For those who take these passages literally, the coming millennium coincides with their numerological interpretation of the biblical timetable for the ''End of Days.''

The Israelis swiftly deported all of these believers: Brother David and roughly 20 of his followers; 14 of the Concerned Christians; Elijah; and a handful of others.

Some members of the mainstream Christian community and even the Israeli Anti-Defamation League have criticized some of the deportations as overzealous. The Irish Embassy in Tel Aviv expressed outrage at the treatment of a group of Christian pilgrims who were roughed up and turned away when they landed at the port of Haifa. One legal specialist, Ron Shapira of Tel Aviv, has complained that Israel's deportation laws ''allow the government to act arbitrarily.''

Sensitive to such criticism, Ben-Ami said, ''We should be very careful not to overdramatize the threats posed by such esoteric groups.'' However, Israel's minister of tourism, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former military chief of staff, said, ''Maybe we might make some mistakes. But the threat is very big and we are responsible for the saftey to the 3 million who will visit.''

David Katz, a professor at Tel Aviv University and author of ''Messianic Revolution,'' a study of evangelical Protestant groups, said the key to avoiding anything that could trigger a wider conflict will be the way the police handle these groups.

Katz and others worry about veiled messages being sent by extremist Jewish settlers in the Old City, whose views could encourage a Christian sect to try to destroy the Dome of the Rock in order to pave the way for building a Third Temple. He pointed to posters sold in some shops that depict the Temple Mount without the Dome of the Rock.

Others note that two groups have meticulously made replicas of tools used for animal sacrifices, to have them ready for use when the temple is rebuilt.

''We have to talk to these people,'' said Katz. ''They have to be embraced and convinced that there are different interpretations.''

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