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Police, protesters clash at Jerusalem holy site

Israeli officers say a Muslim march against excavation work turned violent. Palestinians say they were attacked.

February 10, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli police raided the grounds of Islam's third-holiest shrine Friday, chained the compound's gates behind them and fired tear gas and stun grenades into a crowd of thousands of Muslim worshipers to quell a rock-throwing protest over Israeli excavation work nearby.

The clash outside the Al Aqsa mosque set off protests across the Muslim world and led to scattered violence in the West Bank. It came a day after rival Palestinian movements Hamas and Fatah agreed to end months of factional fighting, a move some Israeli leaders believe could lead to stepped-up attacks against the Jewish state.

Friday's 90-minute battle erupted at the end of noon prayers and resulted in about 150 protesters retreating into the mosque and setting up barricades. The standoff ended when an Arab member of the Israeli parliament persuaded the protesters and 200 police officers to leave the compound peacefully.

Seventeen Palestinians, some of them elderly, and 19 police officers were reported injured. Seventeen protesters were arrested in the violence in Jerusalem's Old City, and isolated skirmishes between police and demonstrators continued for hours in the narrow cobblestone streets.

Anger over the excavation had been building for days as clerics across the Muslim world charged that the digging at the site of a pedestrian ramp about 65 yards from Al Aqsa would undermine the mosque's foundations, an accusation Israel denies.

Police operation

Friday's incident gave Muslims a fresh grievance against the Jewish state: a forceful police operation, the first since 2004, in a compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount. Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from the site, which is also home to the golden-capped Dome of the Rock shrine. Jews revere the spot as the site of their first and second temples.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police moved onto the compound's hilltop esplanade after a protest march turned violent.

Mark Regev, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, accused "extremist elements with a hateful agenda" of provoking the violence.

But Mohammed Hussein, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, said police provoked the clash by attacking a crowd of several dozen demonstrators before the march started.

The mufti, Jerusalem's highest-ranking Islamic cleric, said he was finishing the prayer service in the mosque when he heard grenades and tear gas guns outside. He pleaded over the loudspeaker for police to go away.

"What the police did was a preorchestrated act to intimidate people who are angry about the digging," he said in an interview. "They started firing grenades before anyone had a chance to protest."

As worshipers left the mosque, he added, "the police attacked old people, women and children. It was repulsive."

Young men in the crowd hurled stones, bottles and trash. Medics tended injured people lying on the stone pavement.

Jewish worshipers were evacuated from the Western Wall plaza at the foot of the compound.

'Day of anger'

The clash sparked rock-throwing incidents in Hebron, Kalkilya and Bethlehem in the West Bank. There were peaceful marches in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called "a day of Palestinian anger."

But so far there has been nothing on the scale of the rioting of 2000 that kicked off the Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada. The compound was ground zero for that uprising, provoked by an unwelcome visit by Ariel Sharon, then Israel's opposition leader and later its prime minister.

Friday's violence sparked additional protests in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, where television viewers watched live footage of Israeli police chasing Muslim demonstrators across hallowed ground.

With anger over the excavations rising, the Israeli government had sent 3,000 policemen into the Old City and tried to limit access to the compound to women and men older than 45. But dozens of younger men slipped in before the checkpoints went up, police said.

Israel began the excavations Tuesday as a legally mandated step toward replacing a pedestrian ramp that leads to the compound's Mugrabi Gate. The ramp, weakened by a snowstorm and an earthquake, collapsed in 2004 and had been replaced by a temporary wooden structure. By law, any construction in the Old City must be preceded by digging to salvage artifacts.

The digging is taking place in the Jewish Quarter, just outside the compound, but Muslim leaders denounced it as an attempt to weaken the mosque. Israel's Antiquities Authority sought to assure them Tuesday that the excavation work does not touch the wall around the compound.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz demanded in a memo to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week that the work be halted to avoid inflaming the Palestinians. The memo, leaked to Israeli media, notes that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is planning to visit Jerusalem next week for peace talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Olmert rejected the appeal and ordered the work to proceed.

boudreaux@latimes.com

Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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