- The Washington Times - Monday, July 30, 2001

JERUSALEM — Palestinians rained stones on Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall yesterday, prompting Israeli police to storm the neighboring Al-Aqsa mosque compound in a day of searing tensions that highlighted the combustibility of these two adjacent shrines.
No one was killed, but the clashes marked the worst violence at the shrines since the first day of a Palestinian uprising exactly 10 months ago when four Arabs died at the compound, which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary.
Police used tear gas, stun grenades and, Palestinians say, rubber bullets to disperse thousands of Muslims at the shrine in a tense exchange that lasted hours.
"This was a deliberate provocation [by Palestinians], a very dangerous provocation," said Jerusalem Police Chief Mickey Levy, speaking to reporters at the scene of the clashes.
Israeli authorities had been bracing for clashes at the site as Jews yesterday marked Tisha Ba'Av, the day when two Jewish temples were destroyed at the site in the years 586 B.C. and 70 A.D.
The tension was followed by other violence in the West Bank and Gaza.
Six Palestinians were killed by an Israeli tank last night near the Farah refugee camp in the Nablus region of the West Bank, Palestinian security forces said.
The six were members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed faction of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. The targets of the strike were said to be at the top of Israeli most-wanted lists.
In an exchange of fire near the West Bank town of Ramallah, three Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were wounded.
Near Jerusalem, a car bomb exploded in an underground parking lot, causing no injuries. Police said the explosives had detonated prematurely.
Al-Aqsa and a second mosque, known as the Dome of the Rock, were built by Muslims hundreds of years later on the ruins of the temples. Some radical Jewish groups believe the mosques should be razed to make room for a new Jewish temple.
One such group, the Temple Mount Faithful, announced days ago that it would enter the mosque compound on Tish Ba'Av to lay the cornerstone for a new temple.
While policemen prevented members of the group from reaching the site, rumors that Jews would overrun the compound brought tensions to a boil.
Palestinians, racing to the edge of the compound, hurled stones, sticks and bottles at Jewish worshippers near the Wall below. Some of the worshippers raised plastic chairs over their heads for protection. Others scampered across the stone plaza of the Western Wall to an area where the rocks could not to reach them.
"It was the most frightening moment of my life," said Jenna Levy, an American tourist who watched a stone land inches from her while she prayed.
At least 35 Palestinians and 15 Israeli policemen were wounded in the raid on the compound by police dressed in full riot gear. Hundreds of others took refuge in the Al-Aqsa mosque. Police refrained from entering the mosque to avoid further bloodshed.
After negotiations that lasted through the afternoon, the demonstrators left the mosque quietly.
Mr. Levy, the police chief, said his officers had done their job by preventing Jews from entering the Al-Aqsa compound. But Palestinians at the site said the troops used excessive force.
The police "have no right to come up here. This is a Muslim site," said Palestinian protester Dayman Mohammed.
Before police stormed the site, the leader of the Temple Mount group, Gershon Salomon, told about 30 followers near the Western Wall that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon must let Jews rebuild the Jewish temple.
"The Temple Mount is ours and Sharon was not elected to warm his seat but to redeem Jerusalem," he said.
Israel captured the shrine area along with the rest of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war.
The Jewish state annexed the area but let a Muslim trust known as the Waqf run the Noble Sanctuary. Jews rarely enter the compound.
The confrontation, which illustrated how a fringe group can cause religious conflagration in an area already rife with tension, triggered angry Arab reactions across the Middle East.
In Cairo, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said: "The developments which the Al-Aqsa mosque compound is witnessing are serious and indicate the extent of [Israeli] bad intentions. Bad intentions will have serious consequences."
Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi said the police decision to storm Al-Aqsa was "an act of supreme provocation."
More than 600 people have died since fighting in the West Bank and Gaza began in September. About 130 of the dead are Israeli and the rest are Palestinian.
The clashes erupted shortly after Mr. Sharon — then head of Israel's opposition — climbed the Noble Sanctuary to show Palestinians who controlled the shrine.
The fighting has continued despite several cease-fire agreements, including one brokered by CIA Director George Tenet last month.

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