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Three Jewish extremists were interrogated by police on suspicion they planned to fire a missile into the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine, in hopes of disrupting the planned Gaza withdrawal, police said today.

The suspects were initially placed under house arrest last month, but later released under unspecified restrictions.

Israel’s Justice Ministry said the suspects would not be indicted because there was no evidence they carried out any part of the plot and that they had second thoughts about it even before they were detained.

Naftali Wirtzburger, lawyer for the three, said his clients had never served in the army and had no idea how to fire a missile. He accused the security forces of entrapment. “They (the security forces) sent an agent to stir them up and try to encourage them to commit a crime, ” he said.

Israeli security officials have repeatedly warned that some withdrawal opponents, desperate to hold up the Gaza pull-out, might try to attack the Jerusalem mosque compound or assassinate Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Withdrawal opponents have countered that such warnings are part of a smear campaign against them.

A suspect in a different case, a 61-year-old businessman, was questioned about a plan to fly a model plane fitted with a camera over the mosque to provoke Muslim worshippers, police said.

Adnan Husseini, director of the Islamic Trust which administers the mosque compound, warned that any harm to the site would shake the Middle East. “The only one who will bear responsibility for such an explosion is the Israeli government and the Israeli police,” he said.

The mosque and a second Muslim shrine sit on a hill top compound captured by Israel when it took Arab east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. The compound, where the ancient biblical Jewish temples once stood, is the most hotly disputed site in the Holy Land.

Extremist Jews opposed to Israel’s planned Gaza Strip withdrawal have threatened to overrun the shrine in the summer, in order to divert police and soldiers from Gaza, and thereby stop the pull-out. An attack on the site would be liable to ignite violence across the region.

In April, police barred Jewish anti-pull-out activists from rallying at the site, fearing a mass gathering would set off confrontations between Jews and Muslims.

The site has been vulnerable to attacks in the past.

In 1969, an Australian Christian fundamentalist set fire to Al Aqsa and caused extensive damage, saying he wanted to pave the way to rebuild the biblical Temple. An Israeli court ruled him insane.

In 1982, an Israeli reserve soldier from the US opened fire on the Dome of the Rock, the golden-capped mosque opposite Al Aqsa, killing two Palestinians and wounding nine.

Two years later, the Shin Bet caught Jewish extremists who had amassed large amounts of army explosives to blow up the Dome of the Rock.

So potent a symbol is the site that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit there in late 2000, when he was opposition leader, touched off riots that descended into more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.
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