- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2007

JERUSALEM — Anger over Israeli construction to repair a damaged ramp near a disputed Jerusalem holy site erupted into violence yesterday 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 flash point 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 thought 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, police said.

About 200 riot police streamed into 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 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.

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 Bethlehem, Israeli troops fired rubber bullets at Palestinians rioting over the work at the holy site, slightly wounding three.

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

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit demanded that Israel stop the construction and warned of escalation in tensions if it doesn’t, the Middle East News Agency reported. And Jordan’s King Abdullah II said he would try to muster enough international support to pressure Israel to stop the work, according to the Petra news service.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, also called for Israel to halt work on the ramp.

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