- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 28, 2010

JERUSALEM — Israeli police forces stormed the most contentious holy site in Jerusalem on Sunday to disperse masked Palestinian protesters hurling objects at visiting foreign tourists.

The incident was over quickly, but the area remained tense afterward. In the past, violence at the site — known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary — has erupted into deadly battles.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police dispersed some 20 masked protesters who had holed up overnight in the Al-Aqsa mosque inside the hilltop compound. The protesters pelted tourists with objects early Sunday and threw rocks at the police when they responded to the incident, he said.

Calm was quickly restored, he said, and about a thousand tourists have since visited the area.

However, small groups of masked Palestinians continued to clash with police elsewhere in Jerusalem’s Old City and in a nearby neighborhood just outside the walled area.

Mr. Rosenfeld said police dispersed the protesters without having to use force, but two officers were lightly wounded and seven Palestinian rioters were arrested. The clashes ended by midday, but about 15 Palestinians remained holed up inside the complex.

Tensions have been high in recent days following the Israeli government’s announcement that two West Bank shrines would be added to Israel’s list of national heritage sites. Palestinians denounced the move as a provocation, and President Mahmoud Abbas has warned the incident could spark a “religious war.”

Mr. Rosenfeld said it was unclear what sparked Sunday’s violence, but said the decision on the West Bank shrines was clearly in the “background.” The protesters, however, said they were under the impression the site was under attack by Jewish extremists.

Conflicting claims to the hilltop site of Sunday’s violence lie at the heart of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Jews revere it as the site of the two biblical Temples, while Muslims regard the Al-Aqsa compound, home to the gold-capped Dome of the Rock, as Islam’s third-holiest site, where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

The compound has been a frequent flash point for conflicts before. A visit to the site in 2000 by Ariel Sharon, then an Israeli opposition leader and later prime minister, helped ignite deadly clashes that escalated into violence that engulfed Israel and the Palestinian territories for several years.

Israel has controlled the compound since capturing east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and insists it will retain it forever, though it has left day-to-day administration to a Muslim clerical body.

That body, the Waqf, said young men rushed to the compound after hearing a rumor that hardline religious Jews intended to storm the area.

“The police were provoking people. Maybe the youths threw shoes, but they were not hurling rocks,” said Abdul Azim Samhadana, the head of the council.

He said he was not aware of Palestinian youths harming tourists.

Palestinians see east Jerusalem, including the Old City where the sacred complex lies, as the capital of a future state.

Hamas’ minister of religious affairs, Taleb Abu Shaar, called on Palestinians to rise up violently against Israel and “protect our Islamic holy places from the risk of Judaization.”

He called on the United Nations to impose sanctions on Israel “because of its crimes.”

Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid and Dalia Nammari contributed to this report.

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