JERUSALEM (RNS)--The security operation surrounding the upcoming visit of Pope John Paul II will be the biggest such operation ever undertaken in Israel, according to the senior Israeli police official coordinating the effort.

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

Unlike other VIP visits that involved the movement of officials between offices and closed-door political meetings, the pope will be here 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 from place to place for meetings. In this case, however, the pope is here to look and see the holy places. He'll be moving between sensitive points that are important to Muslims, Jews and Christians. And people also want to 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 Authority territories 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 be involved in protecting the pope and controlling crowds. Palestinian police, meanwhile, will have full responsibility for the pope on March 21, the day he visits Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, meets with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, and tours the Dehaishe refugee camp in the Bethlehem area.

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

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

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

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

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

While visiting Jerusalem on March 23 and 26, the pope will make three 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 on his 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 the papal visit, Tsur admitted. Streets will be closed to traffic, and even parked cars will be removed from areas along the sidewalk for hours before the pope makes any move.

"While you are still sleeping, the roads will all be closed, and we will sterilize them," he said. "Roads in Jerusalem will be blocked for hours, and people will be unable to move around from one side of the city 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 overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Throughout the night, thousands of tour buses will bring about 100,000 pilgrims into the area so that they can all be seated in a newly prepared hillside arena by 7 a.m. March 24, three hours before the pope arrives at the site by helicopter.

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

Yet, Tsur said, the massive preparations will be driven more by the peculiar nature of the prelate's schedule and movements than by any specific intelligence information indicating terrorists might try to disrupt the historic pilgrimage.

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

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