Israeli riot police, Palestinians clash at holy site
Israeli riot police entered the grounds of Islam’s third-holiest shrine Sunday and fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse rock-throwing Palestinians who had gathered to prevent Jews from praying at the contested site in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The 45-minute clash outside the Al Aqsa mosque underscored the volatility of Jerusalem’s holy places in the decades-old Middle East conflict. It sparked protests by Jordan, the 22-member Arab League and the Palestinian Authority, which is engaged in U.S.-mediated efforts to revive peace talks with Israel.
Palestinian leaders called the Israeli police action a deliberate provocation. Police officials said Palestinians started the fight.
Seventeen police officers were reported hurt and 11 Palestinians arrested as the violence spilled into the narrow streets of the Old City and beyond. Medics said eight Palestinians were treated at hospitals.
The trouble started after about 200 religious Jews gathered outside the Old City’s Dung Gate, intent on entering to pray in the compound revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Waiting near the mosque were about 150 Palestinian protesters who had been summoned by religious and civic leaders to block the Jews.
About 7 a.m., the gate opened and at least 70 police officers in riot gear escorted about 15 civilians inside, and fierce clashes ensued, witnesses said.
Initially police said they were escorting Jewish worshipers; later a police spokesman, Shmuel Ben Ruby, said the group was made up of non-Jewish French tourists.
Dmitri Diliani, a Palestinian Christian among the protesters, said at least two members of the escorted group wore kippahs, the skullcaps of observant Jewish men. Other protesters said they were convinced the police were ushering members of Israel’s settler movement, whose communities on West Bank land claimed by the Palestinians are a source of contention.
Whoever they were, they quickly retreated as Palestinians began hurling rocks, chairs and shoes, according to Diliani and other witnesses.
Police pushed the Palestinians across a hilltop esplanade toward the mosque, where some of the protesters took refuge.
As other demonstrators tried to prevent the police from approaching the mosque, Muslim clerics arranged a truce, and the police left.
Religious and nationalist sentiment has made the site a tinderbox. Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from the spot, which is also home to the gilded Dome of the Rock shrine. Jews revere the place as the site of their first and second temples.
A visit in 2000 by Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s opposition leader and later its prime minister, helped spark a violent Palestinian uprising. But forceful, large-scale Israeli police interventions in the compound are rare; Sunday’s was the third in five years.
The site has been under Israeli control since its capture from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War, but it is administered by a Muslim religious trust.
Under an agreement with the trust, Israelis may enter the compound under police escort but are barred from holding organized prayer sessions like the one planned for Sunday. In the face of such attempts in the past, Israeli police closed off access to the compound to prevent clashes.
By permitting an exception Sunday, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Israel “is deliberately escalating tensions in Jerusalem,” where Palestinians want to locate the capital of a future state.
“The fate of Jerusalem lies in negotiations,” he said. “It will not be decided by violence or brutality.”
Sunday’s violence erupted as Jews prepared for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which started at sundown. It did not affect Jewish prayers at the Western Wall, at the foot of the compound.
Special correspondent Maher Abukhater contributed to this report.