JERUSALEM—Fine-tuning their response to the worst outbreak of violence in years in Jerusalem, Israeli authorities have authorized the use of snipers against rioters posing lethal threats and have reportedly limited the number of Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount, the current focus of the Arab unrest.
According to security officials, there have been more than 5,000 incidents of rock throwing so far this year in the city, the great bulk of them involving Arab youths targeting Israeli cars in East Jerusalem and Israeli homes bordering Arab neighborhoods. There have also been several hundred incidents involving firebombs thrown at vehicles and homes.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared last week that harsh steps would be taken to deal with the problem.
"Rocks and firebombs are weapons that kill," he said. A Jewish resident of Jerusalem was killed this month when a rock was thrown through his windshield causing him to drive off the road and hit a pole.
A police request to employ sniper rifles against rioters targeting Israeli civilians was approved last week by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein who set strict limits to their use.
Until now, the weapon, a .22 Ruger American, has been used on occasion in the West Bank but not in Jerusalem. One official said that when undercover forces sometimes entered a village or neighborhood at night, the Ruger was used to shoot out streetlights. It has also been used there in rock throwing incidents. The rifle is said to be highly accurate at long range and low-powered. Police officers said it will be used only by sharpshooters who have undergone training at the National Police Academy. Their object will not be to kill, officials said, but to wound in the legs.
The attorney general said that the weapon is not to be used against demonstrators protesting vocally, only at those wielding rocks and firebombs in circumstances where civilian lives are in danger.
The Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, said that despite the Ruger’s less lethal character it could still be deadly. "Legalizing fire on rock-throwers in Jerusalem would be legalizing taking the blood of Palestinian youths," it said.
Unlike the intifada, which broke out in 2000—when Palestinian militants organized in cells—the current unrest is dominated by youths ranging in age from 10 to about 20.
Netanyahu has proposed setting mandatory punishment of four to five years in jail for stone throwers and 10 years for those throwing fire bombs. He has also called for heavy fines on the families of youths too young to be jailed convicted of throwing stones and bombs. The attorney general said that if mandatory sentences are decided on it should only be as temporary provision for a year or two to see if they have a deterrent effect.
According to Israel Radio Monday night, the authorities are reducing the number of non-Muslim visitors permitted on the Temple Mount in order to pacify Jordan’s King Hussein and other Arab leaders who have expressed concern about an increasing Jewish presence on the Mount.
The Temple Mount was built 2,000 years ago by King Herod as an expansion of the hilltop praying area, site of the Jewish temple, built by King Solomon 1,000 years before. The Romans destroyed the temple in 70 AD. The Arabs arrived six centuries later, and it was they who built the main structures presently on the mount—Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine.
After the 1967 Six Day War, Israel claimed sovereignty over the Mount but left de facto control in Arab hands. The status quo that was put in place left exclusive prayer rights to Muslims. However, non-Muslims, including Israeli Jews and tourists, can visit the Mount at certain hours each day.
Rabbinical authorities initially forbade religious Jews from visiting the Mount, precisely because of its sanctity.
In recent years, more and more religious Jews have nevertheless chosen to visit. They are shepherded by police who attempt to prevent provocation from either side. Settler leaders have called for changing the status quo to permit Jewish prayer on the Mount, but Netanyahu has said that the status quo will remain unchanged.