- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2005

JERUSALEM — Laura Bush waded into Middle East tensions yesterday during chaotic visits to sacred religious sites, where crowds and hecklers grew so rowdy that armed guards had to restrain them.

The first lady said what she witnessed showed that passions are running high among Palestinians and Israelis. “The United States will do what they can in this process,” she said, urging both sides to work for peace.

Before entering the ruins of an eighth-century palace in the West Bank town of Jericho, Mrs. Bush told reporters, “As you can tell from our day here, this is a place of emotion, everywhere we went, from the Western Wall to the Dome of the Rock to here.”

At the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest shrine, protesters demanded that the U.S. release a Jewish American imprisoned for spying for Israel. At her stop nearby at the Dome of the Rock, she faced heckling from Palestinians. One man yelled, “How dare you come in here. Why your husband kill Muslim?”

As she moved into the Palestinian territory, she said that both sides in the conflict sent her the same message. “We’re reminded again of what we all want, what every one of us pray for,” she said. “What we all want is peace.”

Mrs. Bush placed a note in the Western Wall that she wrote while flying yesterday from Jordan to Israel. She wanted to keep the contents private, a spokeswoman said.

Dozens of protesters stood nearby, shouting, “Free Pollard now.” Convicted spy JonathanPollard, who is serving a life sentence in the United States, was a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy.

Mrs. Bush’s five-day visit to the Middle East was intended partly to help defuse anti-American sentiment in the region. Strains have arisen because of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and charges that American interrogators have mistreated Muslim prisoners.

Some visitors whom Mrs. Bush encountered near the Dome of the Rock shouted at her in Arabic. “None of you belong in here,” one man yelled as Mrs. Bush and her entourage arrived.

Mrs. Bush removed her shoes as she entered the mosque and walked barefoot on the red carpet. She held a black scarf tightly around her head as she gazed up at the gilded dome and the colorful mosaics.

Some women studying inside the mosque were clearly annoyed at the intrusion and waved their fingers at the U.S. entourage. Despite the chaos at both sites, Mrs. Bush kept smiling and said little.

As she left, visitors and reporters grew so aggressive that Israeli police locked arms and encircled her in a wide human chain. U.S. Secret Service agents packed tightly around her. The police yelled at those who got too close to stay back and pushed them away if they did not listen.

Pollard’s supporters also held up signs outside the residence of Israeli President Moshe Katsav, where Mrs. Bush had tea with his wife, Gila, and other Israeli women.

No protesters were evident when Mrs. Bush had lunch with leading Palestinian women at a hotel in Jericho, a town that Israel recently turned over to Palestinian control, or when she visited the palace ruins and appealed for peace.

“It will take a lot of baby steps, and I’m sure it will be a few steps backward on the way,” she said.

“But I want to encourage the people that I met with earlier and the women that I just met with that the United States will do what they can in this process. It also requires the work of the people here, of the Palestinians and the Israelis to come to the table, obviously. And we’ll see.”

Adnan Husseini, director of the Islamic Trust that administers the mosque compound, said Mrs. Bush tried to play down the heckling, saying it could have happened anywhere.

Mr. Husseini said he told her he hoped President Bush would exert pressure to achieve peace in the Holy Land. Mr. Bush is meeting Thursday at the White House with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

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