New confrontation looms over Jerusalem's most volatile holy site as Israel plans to restrict access

Wednesday, October 13th 2004, 8:30 pm
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israel said Wednesday it would severely limit the access of Muslim worshippers to Jerusalem's holiest site during the holy month of Ramadan, claiming it could collapse. Four Palestinians were killed in Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip.

Angry Muslim clerics dismissed Israel's claims, saying Arab engineers assured them the Al Aqsa Mosque compound was stable. They accused Israel of exaggerating the danger in hopes of increasing its control over the site, which is administered by the Islamic Trust.

Israeli police and archaeologists warned that because of a recent earthquake, part of the compound, Islam's third holiest shrine, might collapse under large crowds of believers during Ramadan, which begins this weekend.

The sacred hilltop, revered by Jews as the site of their biblical temples, is one of the most sensitive spots in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and riots there in 2000 escalated into the current round of fighting. Israeli attempts to restrict the number of worshippers could lead to more Palestinian protests.

Israel's police minister, Gideon Ezra, said he wants the Islamic Trust, or Waqf, to declare the southeastern corner of the holy site compound off-limits.

If the Waqf does not agree, ``we will view this as a real and immediate threat and we can't let this happen ... we will have to limit the number of worshippers to 50,000 or 60,000,'' Ezra told Israel Army Radio. The compound holds about 250,000 people and is often filled to capacity during the main Ramadan prayers.

The chief Muslim cleric, or mufti, of Jerusalem, said he would not go along with the Israeli request. Egyptian and Jordanian engineers who inspected the walls after the earthquake said that ``there is no real danger,'' the mufti, Ikrema Sabri, told The Associated Press.

Late Wednesday, Israeli aircraft targeted a group of militants near Beit Lahiya, a town in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, witnesses said, killing one Hamas member and wounding another.

Another Hamas militant was killed in a missile strike early Thursday in the Jebaliya refugee camp, and a second died later in a hospital.

The Israeli military said in both cases soldiers spotted militants planting explosives and targeted them.

As the violence flared, about 20 tanks moved into the Rafah refugee camp on the Egyptian border and destroyed four abandoned structures, Palestinians said. Israeli helicopters fired missiles, killing a Palestinian early Thursday. It was not immediately known if he was armed. Two people were wounded in an earlier air strike.

The military said it was a ``routine'' operation to remove cover for Palestinian gunmen. More than 100 Palestinians have been killed during the recent Gaza offensive, about half of them civilians.

Earlier Wednesday, Israeli troops captured the Hamas chief in the West Bank city of Hebron after surrounding his hideout. The fugitive, Eymad Qawasmeh, was ordered to strip to ensure he was not armed, and was led away blindfolded and in his underwear. Bulldozers destroyed the hideout.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz branded Qawasmeh a ``mass murderer'' who he said was responsible for a number of suicide bombings. Qawasmeh is suspected of sending two bombers who killed 16 Israelis in twin bus attacks Aug. 31 in the southern city of Beersheba.

In the Gaza Strip, an Israeli platoon commander was suspended on suspicion he emptied an ammunition clip into a 13-year-old Palestinian girl from close range after she had already collapsed under army fire.

The officer was not charged in the Oct. 5 incident near the Rafah refugee camp, but came under investigation after fellow soldiers said he engaged in an illegal practice known as ``verifying a kill.''

In another incident in Rafah on Wednesday, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy was killed and his 7-year-old cousin shot in the stomach by army fire, hospital officials said. The witnesses said the fire came from army vehicles south of the refugee camp.

The Israeli military said the boys were in a no-go zone.

In the Palestinian refugee camp of Khan Younis, a 5th-grade girl died Wednesday after being shot in the chest the day before while sitting at her desk in a U.N.-run school. The army said soldiers returned mortar fire from the area of the school. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which runs the school, said the camp was quiet at the time and denied mortars were fired from its grounds.

Peter Hansen, the UNRWA chief, said that the incident marked the second time in several weeks that an elementary school girl was killed while in school.

``That two young children have been shot and killed, sitting at their desks in UNRWA schools in the last month is horrific by anyone's standards. Schools should be havens of peace,'' he said in a statement.

In four years of fighting, 3,248 people have been killed on the Palestinian side, including hundreds of minors. On the Israeli side, 999 people were killed, including 98 minors. Many of the Palestinian youngsters were killed while throwing stones at soldiers. Others were hit while in their homes, walking to school or observing clashes.

The Israelis charge that militants operate from populated areas, endangering civilians.

In northern Gaza, target of a two-week-old Israeli military offensive, three more Palestinian militants were killed by Israeli army fire on Wednesday, after tanks moved into the town of Beit Lahiya.

A day after a cousin of Yasser Arafat escaped assassination from a car bomb, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said Palestinian security forces are unable to stop the spreading chaos in the West Bank and Gaza.

Qureia told The Associated Press the attempt on Gaza security chief Moussa Arafat's life fit into the chaos that has included kidnappings of Palestinians and foreigners and other assassination attempts.