Jerusalem Holy Site Violence

Friday, February 9th 2007, 6:42 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Anger over Israeli construction to repair a damaged ramp near a disputed Jerusalem holy site erupted into violence Friday as police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse thousands of rioting Muslims. Protests spread across the Arab world, with demonstrators accusing Israel of plotting to harm Islamic shrines.

Israeli officials accused Palestinians of distorting the project to rally their fractious population against the Jewish state. They insist that the replacement of the ramp, which was damaged in a 2004 snowstorm, would not harm the holy site about 200 feet away.

``We have nothing to hide and yet extremist elements with a hateful agenda have cynically provoked violence by deliberately spreading mistruths about what we're doing,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

Known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, the compound has repeatedly been a flashpoint for violence between Israel and the Palestinians, and there were fears the unrest could spread.

The compound is home to the golden-capped Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa mosque and is believed to be the site where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Jews venerate the compound as the site of their biblical temples, and one of its outer walls _ known as the Western Wall _ is the holiest site in Judaism.

Small protests against the renovation began as soon as work started this week. They became violent after Friday prayers, when Muslims at the compound began throwing rocks at police stationed outside, according to Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben Ruby.

About 200 riot police streamed onto the compound, scuffling with some of the 3,000 Muslim worshippers. Clouds of tear gas rose up at the holy site, and stun grenades set off sharp booms.

Outside the compound, near Lion's Gate, hundreds of teenagers who had been barred from the mosque hurled stones, iron bars, vegetables and at least one firebomb at police, authorities said. Police responded with stun grenades.

Jewish worshippers were evacuated from the Western Wall plaza at the foot of the compound as a precaution.

The situation grew especially volatile when 150 protesters barricaded themselves inside Al Aqsa. But police did not enter the mosque, and the protesters began leaving 90 minutes later, following negotiations between police and Muslim representatives.

The melee slightly injured 17 protesters and 19 police officers, and 17 rioters were arrested, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Officers shut all the gates leading to the complex, and disconnected loudspeakers that they said were used to incite worshippers.

Three hours after the initial clash, police and demonstrators still played cat and mouse in the narrow alleyways and on the rooftops of the nearby Old City.

But in other areas of the Old City, the scene was calm. Ten pilgrims speaking Russian and carrying wooden crosses walked down the Via Dolorosa, the path Christians believe Jesus took to his crucifixion.

``There is no justification for what they did today, and we think it was pre-orchestrated to bring fears to the spirits of the worshippers angry about the Israeli dig,'' said Adnan Husseini, chairman of the Waqf, the Muslim trust that oversees the shrine.

In the West Bank, youths hurled stones at Israeli security forces at a major checkpoint leading into Jerusalem and near the town of Qalqiliya. South of the town of Bethlehem, Israeli troops fired rubber bullets at Palestinians rioting over the work at the holy site, slightly wounding three. No clashes erupted in a demonstration in the West Bank town of Hebron.

And in the northern Israeli town of Nazareth, about 5,000 Israeli Arabs marched to oppose the work at the mosque.

In Egypt, thousands of anti-riot police beat and chased dozens of protesters into side alleys and streets to prevent them staging a mass demonstration at Al-Azhar Mosque following Friday prayers. Witnesses said dozens of protesters were detained.

Hundreds of Palestinians staged a sit-in at the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon, carrying pictures of Al Aqsa and chanting anti-Israeli slogans. Hundreds of Islamic fundamentalists also protested in the Lebanese port city of Sidon, while 3,000 Palestinians chanted anti-Israel slogans during a march in Syria's Yarmouk refugee camp.

In Jordan, about 2,000 worshippers marched in protest after Friday prayers, calling for the government to close down the Israeli Embassy in Amman and send its ambassador home.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, appealed to Israel to stop the work on the ramp.

``It has potential to disturb the most respected mosque for Muslims all over the world,'' said Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda. ``We urge Israel to stop its archaeological excavation works around the holy Al Aqsa mosque.''

Mohammed Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, blamed Israel for the violence Friday. ``I don't know what impact this aggression will have on the Palestinian territories, but past experience has shown that every time there were clashes at the mosque, it engulfed the other parts of the West Bank and Gaza,'' he said by telephone from inside the compound.

When Israel opened a tunnel alongside the compound in 1996, it touched off clashes that killed 80 people. In 2000, when then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the site, the ensuing riots were followed by years of violence.