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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern, a religiously observant officer who has spoken out decisively against refusal during the disengagement, was pelted with stones, water balloons and other objects at the Western Wall by dozens of fellow worshipers Friday evening.
Police rushed to the scene to block the rioters who attempted to prevent Stern and his family from reaching the Kotel to pray. A policeman was hit by a stone but did not require medical treatment. Police detained at least one rioter.
Stern was wearing civilian clothes during the incident, which was filmed by Channel 2. The rioters called Stern â€œtraitor.â€ Police ended up evacuating Stern and his family to a safer area in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Reports said over 100 haredi and religious worshipers took part in the melee at the Western Wall plaza, which was packed with thousands of people.
It was the second time that Stern was personally attacked. In July he visited Neveh Dekalim and was shoved around. Youths later punctured his tires.
During the disengagement, Stern had told military reporters that refusers would be dealt with harshly and officers who disobeyed orders would be stripped of their rank.
Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz wasted little time in condemning the assault. Issuing a rare Friday night statement, Halutz said that there was no place for such behavior. He added that he would expect that after Yom Kippur people would act with more tolerance towards one another.
â€œThis was a sad incident,â€ Stern told The Jerusalem Post Saturday night. â€œI hope it really shakes up world Jewry when a major general can't pray at the Western Wall.â€
â€œI hope this garbage is taught to understand the limits. We won't let them destroy the state. We won't let anyone prevent us from praying at the Western Wall,â€ Stern said. â€œThese people are the ones who are boycotting hitchhiking soldiers, and marginalizing themselves from the country.â€
Stern told the Post that he was disheartened by the fact that many of those who assaulted him were Americans, most likely haredi tourists.
â€œThere were Americans there. I heard them shouting at me,â€ he said. â€œI don't think they properly understand the issues here and may have been led astray.â€
Stern said that he felt he was singled out because of his high profile position and the fact that he was the only major general who sought to pray at the Western Wall. He said that he felt he has drawn the ire of haredim and religious zealots due to his efforts to change the religious status quo in the IDF ranks.
This included his desire to break up the hesder units as well as increasing the conversion of non-Jewish soldiers.
While full of praise for national religious soldiers, he said no concessions should be made for those who continue to abuse democracy.
'The Zionist religious soldiers have proven they understood exactly what this was all about and that is why we didn't have any refusal,â€ Stern said.
â€œWe have to move forward from this negative incident. I feel backing from everyone, that doesn't matter. What matters is that this group has to be dealt with,â€ Stern said.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra, and Halutz after the incident and directed them to do everything to make sure that IDF officers and soldiers are able to pray at the Wall â€œwithout being attacked by worshipers there.â€ He also instructed them to do everything to arrest those involved in the violence.
Sharon called Stern Saturday night and said he viewed the attack â€œvery gravelyâ€ and wanted to convey his â€œhigh esteemâ€ for him. Sharon also said he was aware that Stern and his family had been under a great deal of pressure and subjected to threats.
According to a statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office, Sharon praised Stern for his decision to return and pray at the Wall on Saturday, and also called upon the leaders of the national religious camp to come out strongly against these types of actions.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that the attack on Stern represented an attack on all IDF forces, Israel Radio reported.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall, called the attack a desecration of both God and the Sabbath.
Rabinowitz also noted that many of those praying at the time of the incident immediately rushed to protect Stern.