Hundreds of Palestinian youths scuffled with Israeli police at a Jerusalem holy site Friday, after police barred them from prayers amid fear of riots and unrest during the funeral and burial of Yasser Arafat.
Police were on their highest state of alert and canceled all leaves, worried that the prayers for the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, together with mourning for Arafat, would get out of control.
“We have thousands of policemen on duty, basically the whole police force,” said police spokesman Gil Kleiman. “We are on our highest level of mobilization.”
In Jerusalem, security focused on the Old City where thousands of Muslims were expected to gather at the Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques for the prayers.
Police restricted access to male worshippers, barring West Bank residents and allowing only Jerusalem residents age 45 or older to enter.
Clashes with worshippers
Before the prayers, hundreds of youths tried to force their way onto the compound and were pushed back by an equal number of police and soldiers. As the worshippers moved toward the shrine, police shoved them back, holding up their clubs and throwing a few punches.
The angry worshippers, some of them crying, began a makeshift prayer service on the street.
In a nearby Arab neighborhood, police used stun grenades to disperse hundreds of stone-throwers. There were no reports of injuries.
In the Old City, hundreds of police and border guards in full riot gear took up positions, keeping crowds of young Muslims away from the holy site. At a ramp leading up to the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, riot police were on standby, holding tall plastic riot shields.
Kleiman said heavy security already had been planned for the Friday worship, but was heightened even further when it was learned the prayers would coincide with Arafat’s burial in his Ramallah compound following a service in Cairo.
The police also warned Israelis not to attend Arafat’s funeral, saying they had information that Palestinians were planning to harm them.
The mosques sit on the disputed holy site known to Muslims as Haram a-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount, site of the biblical temples. It is one of the most sensitive areas in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a frequent flashpoint.
Palestinian towns, cities sealed off
The military was also on a high state of alert. Reinforcements were dispatched to the Ramallah area, and Palestinian towns and cities were sealed off. All Palestinians were barred from entering Israel.
However, the army said Palestinians would be allowed to travel to the Ramallah burial site using public transport and designated roads.
Military officials said the army would postpone patrols inside Palestinian towns to avoid clashes Palestinians.
Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra said Israel was determined to ensure proceedings were orderly, but Israel was prepared for all circumstances.
“Today is a day that is important that it end quietly,” Ezra told Israel TV. “In the Middle East anything can happen and we are prepared for anything.”