Israeli Police Prepare for New Year's Eve Challenges

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel will be on heightened security alert this New Year's Eve, guarding against any problems that might arise due to three major coinciding events - the fourth Friday of Muslim Ramadan prayers; end-of-century New Year's Eve celebrations; and the millennium bug.

Brigadier-General David Tsur, commander of Special Police Units, said Israel had engaged in drills in preparation for December 31, and he said about 20,000 policemen would be on duty throughout the country.

"You will see a lot of policemen in the street," Tsur told reporters on Sunday. "We are thinking that we will be very much occupied with traffic problems."

On the morning of Friday Dec. 31, some 400,000 Muslims are expected to pray at the al-Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount for the final Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

In the evening, police will be on hand to ensure the safety of Israelis and foreign visitors celebrating the turn the millennium. From midnight they will be monitoring the country's systems for any breakdown caused by the Y2K computer bug.

"We are organizing the other forces - first aid and infrastructure - [and they will be] connected to a command post" at police headquarters, Tsur said. Minister-without-portfolio Haim Ramon will be in charge of the command post that day, helped by Israel's Chief of Police.

Like the rest of the world, Israel will be watching the situation in the Far East, which will enter 2000 about 12 hours before Israel. However, Tsur said, they are certain upgrades made to computer systems will have solved any Y2K glitches and will instead be looking for public reaction.

In addition to the Y2K computer problems and regular celebrations, Israel will be hosting some of the three to four million tourists expected in the country throughout 2000. Christians are expected to tour the Holy Land in large numbers to mark the year generally portrayed as the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus.

Israel has been on the look out for apocalyptic cults amid concerns might try to create end-of-the-world scenarios by committing mass suicide or terror attacks in a bid to prompt Jesus' return.

There have been three separate deportations of suspect groups over the past year, involving dozens of people. A Denver-based group calling itself, "Concerned Christians" was deported last January after security officials claimed they had planned to commit suicide.

Several months ago a group of Irish pilgrims were turned back at the Haifa seaport after security officials received information that they were an apocalyptic group. After the deportation, the Irish government objected to the deportation of its citizens, saying that they were not cult members. Israel did not go back on its original assessment.

In the fall, "Brother David," a New Yorker who had lived in Jerusalem for years without a visa, was deported to the U.S., together with several associates. Though the official reason given for the deportation was a visa violation, he was said to have been a threat to security.

Christian leaders in the country, while agreeing that Israel had every right to deport the man for visa violations, said nevertheless they did not believe he posed a security threat.

"Hundreds of thousands of tourists are coming to Israel and no-one is being deported," Tsur said, adding that Israel "had very good reasons" for deporting those sent home earlier.

Last week, Americans were warned by the U.S. State Department to stay away from large celebrations during the end of year period because of fears of terror attacks.

Jordan then revealed that it had captured 13 suspected Islamic terrorists suspected of attacking Americans and Israelis at religious and other sites in Jordan.

Tsur said Israel had no specific intelligence warnings that Americans would be targeted for attack inside Israel. The police were working to make the country safe for the tourists.

"I think Israel will be a very safe place, if you ask me, during this 31st. And I think if I was a tourist I would come to Israel to enjoy it," Tsur added.