Israeli soldiers formed a human wall Thursday to block dozens of right-wing women and their children trying to defy an army closure on Rachel's Tomb, a Jewish shrine at the entrance to the Palestinian-ruled town of Bethlehem.
The tomb had been expected to be opened Thursday to enable Jews to worship there to commemorate Jewish matriarch Rachel, but the area has been the site of fierce clashes since the Intifada or Palestinian uprising was unleashed six weeks ago.
The army said the area had been declared a "closed military zone" because of fears of attacks by Palestinians.
"We took the decision to close the tomb because of precise information about attacks or shootings against unarmed worshippers and we cannot take the risk of seeing people killed," Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told public radio.
But defying the order, a busload of women and children organized by right-wing group Women in Green broke through one army barricade and tried to gain access to the heavily fortified site.
"You are also Jews and Israelis, please let us go and pray at our mother's tomb," one woman pleaded to an Israeli soldier. "We should not have to be afraid of you, our enemies should be afraid."
Most of the women sat at the entrance to the city, reading aloud from prayer books, surrounded by up to 150 Israeli soldiers and police who occasionally dragged away militants who moved too close to the tomb site.
"Life is more important than prayer," army spokesman Yarden Vatikay told AFP.
Earlier Thursday, another group of Jews tried to enter the building, in an Israeli-controlled area at the northern edge of the West Bank city that lies south of Jerusalem, but the army used force to clear them from the site.
Former right-wing MP and settler representative Hanan Porat criticized the government for "surrendering again in the face of terrorist threats." -- BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AFP)
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