JERUSALEM — Israeli police Monday shot and killed at least 19 Palestinians who were raining down stones on Jews worshiping in Jerusalem's Old City, in the worst outburst of violence in nearly three years of the Palestinian uprising.
About 150 other Palestinians were wounded in the bout of civil unrest, which was on a scale with the most serious in decades of Jewish-Arab strife.
The site of the incident was the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al Sharif, or noble sanctuary. Jews revere it as the site of the Second Temple, destroyed in Roman times, and Muslims believe it is the place where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.
About 3,000 Palestinians had massed there amid reports that a fundamentalist Jewish group was preparing to lay a foundation stone for a new temple in the enclosure where the Dome of the Rock, Islam's third-holiest shrine, is situated.
The Jewish group, the Faithful of the Temple Mount, had been barred by Israel's Supreme Court from entering the enclosure. Nonetheless, the Palestinians hurled stones at worshipers at the Western Wall, which is adjacent to and below the Temple Mount.
Arabs contended that police fired tear gas before any stones were thrown, but police officers and neutral observers insisted that the rocks were thrown without provocation.
The Palestinians burned a police post on the Temple Mount as municipal and border police stormed the site, firing tear gas, rubber-coated pellets and lead bullets.
As panicked Jewish worshipers were evacuated by bus, ambulances moved in to evacuate the Arab dead and wounded. Smoke from burning tires enveloped the Old City and adjacent neighborhoods, creating an atmosphere of war. There were nightmarish scenes of mourning and despair at two hospitals on the nearby Mount of Olives.
In Washington, Secretary of State James A. Baker III chided Israel for using what he said was excessive force, but he said the United States has not yet been able to determine which side was responsible for the confrontation. He noted that Israeli authorities and Palestinians were both accusing the other of provocation.
"We do not have all the facts, but it is fair to say that Israel needs to be better prepared and able to exercise restraint in handling disturbances of this nature," Baker said. "This tragic loss of life is obviously a cause for great sadness."
Baker flatly rejected a suggestion by French President Francois Mitterrand that the incident inevitably links the Arab-Israeli dispute with the crisis in the Persian Gulf. Mitterrand told a news conference in Paris that "one cannot try to defend human rights here and neglect them there."
"Rights are rights," Mitterrand said, according to the British news agency Reuters. "The U.N. Security Council and the U.N. find themselves facing problems that now risk becoming linked."
Baker told reporters in Washington, "We do not see any linkage." He said the United States "will continue working on the peace process" but not because of any connection to the gulf crisis.
Yossi Tuvia, commander of the Israeli border police, which was called in to storm the Temple Mount, said, "I think that in the last three years, this is a riot that we have not known the likes of."
Police Commissioner Yaacov Turner called the incident "unprecedented in its gravity."
At the United Nations, Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar said he was "shocked and greatly dismayed" and that it appears that excessive force was used by the Israeli authorities.
A spokesman for Perez de Cuellar said that "in his view, today's incidents are a tragic illustration of the dangers inherent in the stalemate that has for too long characterized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
The violence marked a break in the relative easing of Israel's suppression of the uprising, or \o7 intifada\f7 , which has been beset by factional violence and disarray for months. Since taking office in June, the right-wing government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has restricted the use of rifles to disperse Palestinian mobs and demonstrations in a bid to reduce tension and take the uprising out of the news.
In recent weeks, however, tension has risen in Jerusalem. A spiral of violence began with the kidnaping and killing of two Israeli youths in August and the subsequent stoning death of an Arab motorist by enraged Israeli mobs. Last week, a police roundup of young activists in the Palestinian neighborhood of Issawiya touched off a stone-throwing protest, and border police responded with rifle fire that left three Palestinians dead.
As far back as last spring, Arab neighborhoods of the city had interrupted the relative quiet with stone-throwing attacks on Israeli buses and cars. At points where Jewish and Arab neighborhoods meet, bitter civil clashes have broken out.