Snipers and roadblocks: Middle East on Bush alert

Snipers patrolling rooftops, streets and entire city blocks sealed off and thousands of police and soldiers on duty — Israel and the Palestinian Authority are going on full alert for United States President George Bush’s visit.

For weeks, Israeli and Palestinian officials have grappled with how to ensure the safety of the leader of the world’s sole superpower in densely populated urban centres in one of the world’s most volatile regions.

“The visit will paralyse Jerusalem,” said one Israeli official.

Streets and entire city blocks are to be closed in Jerusalem and the West Bank capital of Ramallah during the Wednesday to Friday visit, the first by an American president in more than nine years.

Underscoring the security concerns, an American member of al-Qaeda urged Islamist militants to target Bush during his trip, saying he should be welcomed “not by flowers and applause, but with bombs and car bombs”.

In Jerusalem, where the president will be staying with his entourage and meeting Israeli leaders, “it will be impossible to move around and get anywhere close to where he is staying and visiting”, the Israeli official said.

In Ramallah, the area around the muqata, the government compound where Bush will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, “will be practically under curfew”, a security official said.

Israeli police say 10 500 officers and border guards will be on duty. Four thousand Palestinian law-enforcement officials will be deployed in Ramallah alone, with additional personnel in the city of Bethlehem.

“This is the largest operation since the pope’s visit in 2000,” police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said, referring to Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Holy Land in March of that year.

Bush, who visited Jordan in November 2006 and has made several trips to Iraq, is due to spend most of his time in Jerusalem but will go to the occupied West Bank to meet Abbas and visit the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

Outside Abbas’s headquarters in Ramallah, public workers have been busy for days planting trees, flowers and preparing a landing pad ready for the helicopters due to whisk in the American president for his meetings.

While Bush is expected to carry out much of his travel in helicopters, residents of Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem will face checkpoints, streets closed to cars and pedestrian traffic and swarms of security personnel.

In Jerusalem itself, entire blocks around the historic King David Hotel, where the president is staying, will be closed, with snipers due to patrol nearby rooftops and a balloon with cameras and night-vision hovering above, local media reported.

Even robots were sent into the sewers below the King David to check out the subterranean terrain, the Jerusalem Post quoted a hotel official as saying.

Bush’s entourage is expected to take over all of the King David’s 230-plus rooms, as well as nearly 800 others in the city.

People who live near the King David — scene of a deadly 1946 bombing by an underground Zionist group seeking to overthrow British rule in Palestine — are to receive special tags from the Shin Beth internal security service to access their homes, according to media.

Some of the city’s busiest streets will be closed to both cars and pedestrian traffic and no parking will be allowed on streets around the residences of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Shimon Peres — usually packed with vehicles.

In Ramallah, all streets leading to the muqata will be shut to both pedestrian and vehicle traffic from the day before Bush’s meeting with Abbas on Thursday.

Bush is only the second US president to visit the Palestinian territories, although he will not be going to the Gaza Strip — now run by the Islamist militant group Hamas — unlike his predecessor Bill Clinton in December 1998.

When Clinton visited, about 15 000 Israeli law-enforcement officers were deployed in what was billed at the time as one of the biggest police alerts in the country. Nearly as many Palestinian law-enforcement personnel were also mobilised as well as hundreds of US secret service and CIA agents.

In Egypt, a security source said measures in place for Bush in Sharm el-Sheikh were no tougher than those taken for the many other heads of state who visit the Red Sea resort. — AFP

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