In a tense day of clashes at Jerusalem's most contested holy site, Israeli police stormed the Al Aqsa mosque compound Sunday after Palestinians stoned Jews marking a solemn holiday with prayer at the nearby Western Wall. Several hundred Muslims remained holed up inside the mosque all day until they were dispersed by police at sundown.
It was a repeat, in many ways, of the violence that ignited a bloody uprising exactly 10 months earlier. Stones and rumpled prayer mats littered the grounds of the hilltop compound Sunday after the fighting subsided, while down below observant Jews were bustled away to safety.
The Temple Mount to Jews, the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims, this site on the edge of Jerusalem's ancient Old City has been a potent symbolic focus of the uprising from its start, injecting an element of religious warfare into bloodshed that has claimed more than 600 lives.
This time, however, no one was killed. Police in riot gear used stun grenades and yellow rubber bullets--not live ammunition--to corral the Palestinians inside Al Aqsa and wrestled others to the ground. An estimated 30 Palestinians were arrested, marched down a ramp to waiting police vehicles. Fifteen police officers and a similar number of Palestinians were hurt, one of the latter suffering a cracked skull.
Most of the injuries were minor. In a similar battle Sept. 29, at least six Palestinians were killed and the deadliest Israeli-Palestinian fighting in years was set in motion.
While the Jerusalem riots ended without death, in the West Bank, near the Palestinian-ruled city of Nablus, six Palestinian activists were killed early today when their tin shack was ripped apart by an explosion. Reports from the scene quoted officials as blaming Israeli tank fire for the blast, while Israeli security officials suggested that the men were killed while preparing a bomb.
News agencies reported that all of the men were said to be on Israel's wanted list, and Israel has targeted numerous such men for killing.
Sunday's riots in Jerusalem were stoked by Palestinian fears that radical Jews would do damage to Al Aqsa, built along with the gold-crowned Dome of the Rock mosque on the ruins of the Jews' biblical temples.
The clashes touched off angry demonstrations in Palestinian towns throughout the West Bank as crowds pledged to "defend Al Aqsa." Two soldiers and one Palestinian were wounded in gun battles near the West Bank city of Ramallah. And a car packed with explosives blew up in the underground parking garage of an apartment building with Jewish residents on Jerusalem's northern border. Two people were injured.
Tisha B'Av Is Day of Fasting, Mourning
Israelis and Palestinians alike had geared for trouble. Sunday was Tisha B'Av, a day of fasting and mourning when Jews lament the destruction of the first and second temples, in the years 586 BC and AD 70, as well as other dark days in Jewish history.
Hundreds of Israeli police were deployed to block a small group of radical Jewish nationalists, the Temple Mount Faithful, who planned to lay a cornerstone for the "Third Temple."
Even though the Israeli Supreme Court blocked the Temple Mount Faithful's wishes, Palestinian leaders warned in radio addresses of dire incursions, further inflaming tensions.
In a compromise with police, the group was allowed to haul its cornerstone to a parking lot east of the Old City, spend about a minute paying ceremonial homage, then call it quits. From there, about two dozen marched to a gate leading into the Temple Mount, where they stopped, waved banners and chanted.
"God gave us this hill," the group's leader, Gershon Salomon, said.
A few minutes later, Palestinians inside the compound hurled stones at Jewish worshipers lined up at the Western Wall for the Tisha B'Av memorial. Many wore sackcloth and crude sandals as part of a tradition to denote sacrifice and lamentation.
Then, in what one Israeli radio broadcaster called a medieval battle, about 400 police marched onto the hill, feinting and charging from behind shields at rock-throwing Palestinians. Older Muslim men who run the mosques pleaded for calm over loudspeakers. Hundreds of Palestinians fled in panic, many retreating into Al Aqsa. One witness said the police fired percussion grenades and rubber bullets into the interior of Al Aqsa, while three Palestinian witnesses said troops burst into two compound clinics to round up wounded demonstrators.
"You cannot imagine what it is like to have all these soldiers here in such a holy place," said Hytham Muwaswes, 26, clad in scrubs as he worked with emergency medical teams attempting to evacuate the wounded. "They want to punish us. They put the soldiers here to show us that if we do something, they will kill us. They want to prove that we are the problem, not them."
Outside the compound and down in the plaza, Jewish worshipers had quickly been allowed to return to prayers at the wall. Ruth Baars, a Los Angeles native in the modest dress of religious Jews, was marking Tisha B'Av with her 13-year-old daughter.
"They know this is our saddest time--and that they'd want to shoot?" said Baars, a 30-year-old Jewish studies teacher. "They are rioting not to show unhappiness but because they want to kill us. It is scary."
Police and Palestinians continued to spar but soon backed into a tense standoff that lasted the entire afternoon as Muslim clerics, police, Israeli Arab officials and U.S. and European diplomats attempted to negotiate a way out. Eventually, the police agreed to allow the Palestinians to leave the mosque and go home. It was over.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat issued a statement Sunday night thanking the U.S. government and other countries for their intervention, as a result of which "the Israeli forces lifted their siege."
Israeli officials accused Palestinian officials and Israeli Arab members of the Israeli parliament of agitating the Palestinian rank and file with untrue reports that Al Aqsa was imperiled.
"They did everything to incite this conflict," Israeli Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin said.
Islamic Leader Vows to Defend Al Aqsa
Palestinian officials, who had declared Sunday a "day of rage," said Israelis would be guilty of pouring "fuel on the fire" if they allowed the cornerstone to be laid. Police said the Temple Mount Faithful would never have been allowed onto the hill. Members of the outlawed Kach, a Jewish extremist group, did try to break into the Temple Mount on Saturday night, police said.
"If, heaven forbid, these people will manage to break through the police barriers, we will defend the Al Aqsa mosque with our bodies," Ibrahim Sarsour, chairman of the fundamentalist Islamic Movement in Israel, declared earlier Sunday.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as leader of the right-wing opposition last fall, provoked a storm of Arab outrage Sept. 28 by leading a contingent of hundreds of police onto the Temple Mount, saying any Jew had a right to visit what is Judaism's holiest site.
The following day, Sept. 29, Israeli police opened fire on Palestinian worshipers after they stoned Jews at the wall.