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Israelis, Muslims Clash at Holy Site

The World

Police say rocks were thrown; worshipers say officers entered the Al Aqsa mosque without cause. Encounter caps a tension-filled week.

February 28, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli police clashed Friday with Muslims at a contested holy site in the walled Old City here, firing rubber pellets and tossing stun grenades to quell what Israel described as a rock attack on officers.

The brief encounter, which Muslim officials said took place after the police officers entered the compound without cause, resulted in minor injuries. It added to the tensions crackling this week, which began with a Palestinian suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus and also saw violence-marred protests of the barrier Israel is building in and around the West Bank.

The confrontation Friday took place on the hilltop compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al Sharif, or "noble sanctuary." Both groups lay claim to the site, which has been a tinderbox for violence and a major sticking point in peace talks.

The land is sacred to Jews and Muslims. It houses the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims say the prophet Muhammad departed for heaven, and the Al Aqsa mosque, built on a spot that Jews believe held their first and second temples. Both are above the Western Wall.

Palestinian officials said 24 people were hurt during the scuffle, which lasted about 15 minutes. Israeli police said three officers also suffered minor injuries.

Israeli authorities said police entered the compound after officers were pelted with rocks by Muslim worshipers leaving Friday prayers. Stones also were hurled at Jewish worshipers gathering at the Western Wall below, Israeli officials said.

Assailants "left the prayers and started rioting -- hundreds of them," Israeli police spokesman Gil Kleiman said.

Kleiman said police, who are routinely stationed at the entrances to the site, used tear gas, rubber pellets and stun grenades to quell the disturbance. The plaza around the Western Wall also was briefly evacuated. Kleiman said police found two rocks on the plaza next to the women's prayer section.

Muslim officials said the Israelis entered the compound without cause. They said as many as 10,000 worshipers were still in prayer when police stormed into the mosque.

"We're very worried about what is going on. This was an intervention by Israeli police to the mosque without any reason," said Adnan Husseini, director of the Islamic Trust, or Waqf, which manages the site. "This is very dangerous."

Palestinians have occasionally hurled rocks down on Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall. The Waqf seeks to prevent such outbreaks of anger, and Israeli police also attempt to head off trouble by barring Palestinian worshipers below a certain age. During Friday prayers two weeks ago, for example, the minimum age was set at 45.

The current Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, sparked by clashes after a visit to the site by Ariel Sharon, who was then a right-wing opposition leader and today is Israel's prime minister.

Visits by non-Muslims were suspended for nearly three years before being restored last summer.

In other developments Friday, Israeli military officials said a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up near a Jewish settlement in the central Gaza Strip. No one else was injured. The man was on a bicycle near the Kfar Darom settlement and was believed to have detonated the explosives prematurely.

Also in Gaza, Israeli officials said they discovered a 100-foot-long tunnel that they suspect was used by a pair of Palestinian gunmen who fired at Israeli soldiers Thursday near the main crossing into Israel. One Israeli reservist died in the incident, and the gunmen were killed.

The tunnel begins in Gaza and ends in an industrial park on the Israeli side where the soldiers were stationed, a military spokesman said.

In the West Bank late Friday, two Israelis were found dead in a car south of Hebron after an apparent shooting.

In the village of Budrus, peace activists protested construction of the barrier, but without the violence seen a day earlier. On Thursday, two Palestinians were shot dead during a confrontation with Israeli forces in Biddu, northwest of Jerusalem.

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