Israel firms up security as Gaza truce takes hold
AFP, Friday 23 Nov 2012
The popularity of PM Benjamin Netanyahu appears in question among Israelis who preferred a ground invasion of Hamas-controlled Gaza

Israel restricted Palestinian access to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound on Friday and kept a tight grip on security as a hard-won truce ending deadly fighting in and around Gaza firmed up.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightwing Likud party meanwhile prepared for a crunch primary Sunday amid signs that its popularity is slipping among Israelis who would have preferred a ground invasion of Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Tensions on the streets of annexed Arab east Jerusalem remained high after angry demonstrators stormed an Israeli police station in an bid to secure the release of a Palestinian woman who tried to stab a border guard.

A Molotov cocktail was also launched late Thursday at a Jerusalem tram while the Israeli army said it had detained 55 Palestinian "terror operatives" in connection with "recent terrorist and violent activity" in the West Bank.

Israel barred Palestinians under the age of 40 from accessing the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third holiest site, which is also revered by Jews as the site of King Herod's temple before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

"An extensive police force and border guards will also be deployed in sensitive areas around the Old City of Jerusalem," Israeli police spokeswoman Luba Samri said.

The mosque compound has been the focus of clashes in the past and Israel sought to prevent any repetition that could jeopardise the truce that ended eight days of fighting in which 163 Palestinian and six Israeli died.

The truce itself was holding firmly despite a dozen rockets being fired at Israel from Gaza in the first post-truce hours and a warning from Netanyahu that he would resume the offensive if necessary.

The Palestinians also reported their first post-conflict casualty at the hands of Israeli soldiers who they said opened fire on a group of farmers who were going about their daily business near the Gaza border.

An Israeli army spokeswoman accused the Palestinians of staging a "disturbance" that prompted soldiers to fire warning shots.

The first opinion polls assessing the government's handling of the Gaza conflict in the run-up to a snap general election called for January showed a general sense of disappointment that Israel had accepted the ceasefire terms.

A study commissioned by the Maariv newspaper found that 49 percent of respondents said Israel should have continued its operation and just 31 percent said they agreed with the truce.

The same poll found support for Netanyahu's Likud party down by six percentage points over the past month.

But the Likud was still leading the oppposition Labour party by a 37 to 22 percent margin and on pace to be able to form a new governing coalition with ultra-nationalist and Jewish Orthodox groups.

Maariv said many Israelis felt that the truce spelled a "missed opportunity" for the Jewish state to eradicate Gaza's Hamas leaders.

"The ceasefire agreement was essential in the wake of the global and international circumstances and the heavy pressure placed on Israel" by the United States, Maariv wrote.

But "it seems that most of the public in the country has a hard time accepting these explanations."

Sunday's Likud primary will decide who makes it onto the party list to be put to voters in the January 22 election. Analysts are watching to see if the party tilts further to the right in response to public disaffection over the truce.