JERUSALEM — Thousands of Jewish worshipers and tourists fled Jerusalem's Western Wall in panic Sunday as Israeli police used tear gas and fired in the air to disperse Muslim protesters on the nearby Temple Mount.
Tensions were high in the Muslim quarter of the walled Old City because Jewish zealots had announced plans to pray by the mosque.
Jerusalem Police Chief Yosef Yehudai said the violence may have been prompted by a false Israeli newspaper report that the Jewish militants had received permission to pray on the mount in violation of a 20-year-old Arab-Israeli understanding. However, police barred the militants from holding a prayer service there.
Israel's army radio said the disturbance began after a police officer dropped a tear-gas canister as he took an unruly Arab man into custody. The canister accidentally exploded, and dozens of Muslims began fighting with troops on patrol in the area, the radio said.
At one point about 500 Muslims were involved in the unrest, throwing metal bars, bottles and rocks at Israeli troops called in as reinforcements, a police spokesman said.
A 60-year-old Jew praying at the Western Wall was slightly injured when a rock thrown from the overlooking Temple Mount struck him in the head. Several police officers and Arabs limped away from the fighting, and others were overcome by the tear gas. Police reported that three officers were hurt by flying rocks.
Arabs Close Shops
Muslim religious officials said that at least 50 Palestinians were taken to hospitals suffering from the effects of the gas. Police made 12 arrests. Arab shopkeepers in Jerusalem's walled Old City closed their stalls.
The gold-topped Dome of the Rock and the silver-domed Al Aqsa mosque sit on the 36-acre Temple Mount platform, Islam's third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina.
The area also is holy to Jews, who believe the sacred Jewish Temple stood there in ancient times.
Jews in the years since the mosques were built in the 6th and 7th centuries have been forbidden to visit the Temple Mount. Instead they make pilgrimages to the Western Wall.
Since Israel captured the Old City in the 1967 Middle East War, Jews have been allowed back on the Temple Mount platform but only in small numbers.
Gershon Solomon, head of the Temple Mount Faithful, a group of Jews barred by police from staging the prayer service Sunday, later declared: "No power can stop us. We have the will of God.
"The Jews are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount," Solomon said. "They are allowed to pray in New York, Paris and Copenhagen, but they cannot pray in the most holy place for Jews."
Small groups of Jews, about five at a time, were later allowed by police to visit the Temple Mount. No additional violence was reported.