JERUSALEM (RNS)--The security operation surrounding the upcoming visit of PopeJohn Paul II will be the biggest such operation everundertaken in Israel, according to the senior Israeli police officialcoordinating the effort.

"This is maybe the most complicated, large and sophisticatedoperation of VIP protection ever undertaken here," Police CommanderDavid Tsur told a news conference March 8.

Unlike other VIP visits that involved the movement of officialsbetween offices and closed-door political meetings, the pope will behere to see and be seen by the public, Tsur noted, making the operation far more complicated and difficult.

"When President Clinton visited, he was moving very rapidly fromplace to place for meetings. In this case, however, the pope is here tolook and see the holy places. He'll be moving between sensitive pointsthat are important to Muslims, Jews and Christians. And people also wantto look at him," said Tsur.

"The other main difference is the length of the visit," Tsur added,noting the pope's visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authorityterritories will extend over six days.

The pope will arrive at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport from Amman, Jordan, on March 21 and return to Rome on March 26.

Some 18,000 Israeli police and 4,000 Israeli soldiers will beinvolved in protecting the pope and controlling crowds. Palestinianpolice, meanwhile, will have full responsibility for the pope on March21, the day he visits Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, meets withPalestinian President Yasser Arafat, and tours the Dehaishe refugee campin the Bethlehem area.

During the recent Christmas and millennium celebrations, Israeli andPalestinian Authority police acquired considerable experience intransferring VIPs between Israeli and Palestinian spheres of influence,the police commander said, adding he expected no hitches to develop onthat front.

"We'll take him by helicopter to Bethlehem, and the Palestinianswill have full responsibility for him there," said Tsur. "We are surethat they will treat him very nicely."

Tsur said he did not expect any exceptional security problems toarise in connection with the pope's visit to the Israeli-Arab city ofNazareth on March 25. The city has been a flash point ofMuslim-Christian relations, ever since an activist Muslim group begancamping on a plot of land adjacent to Nazareth's Basilica of theAnnunciation over two years ago, demanding the site be set aside for amosque.

"We have had talks with the (Muslim) group and they have said thatthey are more than happy to have the pope visit, that they regard him asa very spiritual man," said Tsur. "All of the area will be closed offanyway, and Muslims, like Christians, will stand on the side of the roadand watch the pope pass."

The pope's travel calendar is complicated by the fact that he willvisit Bethlehem, the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth in daily helicoptertrips via an Israeli Air Force Blackhawk craft, escorted by two CH-53Air Force helicopters. The pope will return to sleep in Jerusalem everynight at the official residence of Monsignor Pietro Sambi, the apostolicdelegate, or ambassador, to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

While visiting Jerusalem on March 23 and 26, the pope will makethree trips through the city in his glass, bullet-proof "popemobile." But since the narrow, winding streets of Jerusalem's Old City are largely inaccessible to cars, some of his trips to key holy sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher will be via a smaller, Israeli-constructed vehicle.

Israeli police will accompany him to all of the Old City sites onhis itinerary, said Tsur, including a March 26 visit to Al Aksa Mosque.

Jerusalem's urban core is likely to be paralyzed in the days of thepapal visit, Tsur admitted. Streets will be closed to traffic, and evenparked cars will be removed from areas along the sidewalk for hoursbefore the pope makes any move.

"While you are still sleeping, the roads will all be closed, and wewill sterilize them," he said. "Roads in Jerusalem will be blocked forhours, and people will be unable to move around from one side of thecity to the other."

Roads all around the Sea of Galilee will be closed off on March 23,the night before a Mass at the Mount of Beatitudes, the site overlookingthe Sea of Galilee. Throughout the night, thousands of tour buses willbring about 100,000 pilgrims into the area so that they can all beseated in a newly prepared hillside arena by 7 a.m. March 24, threehours before the pope arrives at the site by helicopter.

It is clear the Israeli penchant for security will be exercised toits fullest extent during the papal visit, which is viewed here as adiplomatic event of such sensitivity and importance that no mishaps canbe tolerated.

Yet, Tsur said, the massive preparations will be driven more by thepeculiar nature of the prelate's schedule and movements than by anyspecific intelligence information indicating terrorists might try todisrupt the historic pilgrimage.

"People always think Israel is so dangerous, but with no offense toCNN, the streets of Tel Aviv are much safer than the streets ofAtlanta," Tsur said. "And during the papal visit, it is going to bemuch safer than at any other time."

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