ISRAELI police storm Jerusalem mosque compound after Muslims throw stones

Sunday, July 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israeli police stormed the mosque compound that is Jerusalem's most contested religious site, tossing stun grenades Sunday at Muslims who threw stones at Jews worshipping at the nearby Western Wall.

At least 15 policemen and 10 Palestinians were injured inside the hilltop compound, the sensitive site where Israeli-Palestinian violence erupted 10 months ago during a similar confrontation.

About 400 police with helmets and shields clashed with hundreds of young Palestinians heaving stones near the two mosques on the compound. Palestinian medical workers said Israeli forces also fired rubber bullets, but the Israeli police denied the charge.

The compound, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, is the third holiest site in Islam. It is built atop the ruins of the two biblical Jewish temples, the holiest site in Judaism, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

On a tense day in Jerusalem's Old City, the first confrontation took place when the large police contingent blocked about 30 members of an ultranationalist Jewish group from marching on the mosque compound.

Shortly afterward, Muslims inside the compound began throwing stones, bricks and bottles at hundreds of Jews praying down below at the Western Wall, which forms an exterior wall of the compound.

Many of the Jews, both men and women, fled the barrage, with some holding plastic chairs or prayer shawls over their heads for protection. The stone-throwing prompted police to rush inside.

``We're here to prevent the throwing of stones on Jewish worshippers,'' Jerusalem police chief Mickey Levy, who joined the operation, told Army radio. ``The Palestinians were just looking for an excuse for a party. I really hope the Palestinians will not try to ignite things again.''

The initial police action took only minutes and drove most of the Palestinians back inside the mosques.

However, a tense standoff ensued. Palestinian medical workers, clad in white, formed a human buffer between the police and the stone-throwers in a bid to prevent additional clashes.

Some elderly Muslim worshippers also urged the youths to stop throwing stones. However, the Palestinians periodically tossed rocks at the police, who charged the youths to disperse them. The police remained inside the compound for hours, though they did not enter either of the two mosques.

``The Jews are bullying us and no one is able to make them stop,'' said Abdullah Mohammed Abdullah, 53, one of the Muslim worshippers. ``They are not going to quit until they take everything.''

Because the compound is so sensitive, incidents can spark a much larger conflagration between Israelis and Palestinians.

Sunday's confrontation prompted several Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank. Near the city of Ramallah, three Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were injured in an exchange of fire. The Israeli army said Palestinian gunmen opened fire, and the troops shot back.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the mosque compound last Sept. 28 _ he was the main opposition leader at the time _ and provoked outrage among Muslims.

Violence broke out the next day when police clashed with Muslims inside the compound. Since then, more than 500 Palestinians and 100 Israelis have been killed.

Sunday was the Jewish holy day of Tisha B'Av, when observant Jews mark the destruction of Jewish temples at the site in the years 586 B.C. and 70 A.D.

Police were deployed by the hundreds to block the ultranationalist Jews, the Temple Mount Faithful, from reaching the compound and planting a cornerstone for a future Jewish temple. In a compromise, police permitted the group to hold a short ceremony in a nearby parking lot outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City.

After the ceremony, the huge cornerstone, weighing several tons, was taken from the area in a bid to calm tensions. The Temple Mount Faithful demonstrated near a gate leading to the mosques, but the much larger police force easily turned them back.

Muslim groups had called for worshippers to come to the mosques in large numbers, and several thousand turned out to prevent any attempt by Jews to enter the compound.

Israel claims sovereignty over the site, though the Waqf, an Islamic trust, has day-to-day control of the compound. Since the violence broke out, only Muslims have been allowed inside the compound.

The compound was one of the most contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that broke down in January amid the current fighting.