Friday, August 20, 2004

LONDON — Jordan’s official news agency has provoked an angry exchange with Israel by accusing the Jewish authorities of instigating a fire that damaged the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem 35 years ago today.

At the time, a 28-year-old fundamentalist Christian, Denis Michael Rohan, was arrested for setting the blaze to one of Islam’s holiest shrines, declared insane and deported to his native Australia.

Yesterday, on the eve of the 35th anniversary of the incident, Jordan’s official Petra news agency offered its own re-examination of events by asserting that the 1969 blaze had been started by a “radical Jew.”

The agency went further by quoting a Jordanian government official as saying there was “crystal clear proof” that Israeli authorities were involved in “this ugly crime.”

Similar charges were made at the time in Arab news reports, leading to global outrage and threats of another war two years after Israel won control of Jerusalem in the 1967 war.

By rehashing those charges yesterday, Jordan’s news agency provoked an angry response from Israel.

“This is an outrageous libel against us, similar to the continued claims in the Arab world that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are genuine,” said Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Israeli Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

He was referring to a forgery from Czarist Russia about a Jewish plot to take over the world — a document that is accepted as fact today throughout much of the Arab world.

The Al Aqsa Mosque, its golden dome a landmark in Jerusalem’s skyline, sits atop the Temple Mount, as it is known to Jews, or the Noble Sanctuary, as it is known to Muslims.

Although Israel controls Jerusalem, it allows Muslim religious authorities to administer the site.

Martin Gilbert explained in his seminal book, “Jerusalem in the Twentieth Century,” that the arsonist believed that the mosque’s destruction “was the first step in a series of events that would make him King of Jerusalem and enable ‘sweet Jesus’ to return and pray in the rebuilt temple.”

The mosque occupies the site of the Jewish temple that was destroyed by the Romans in the 1st century.

During the 1969 blaze, hysteria over the attack was so great, Mr. Gilbert wrote, that Palestinian women tried to stop Israeli firemen from dousing the flames with jets of water, believing they were pouring gasoline on the flames to destroy the mosque.

The Jordanian news agency also suggested in its account yesterday that the Israelis had not acted to dampen the blaze.

Mr. Steinitz of the Israeli parliament expressed surprise and disappointment that Jordanian officials had raised this “falsehood” at a time when there was already a chorus of “vitriolic Arab propaganda” against the Jewish state.

But he maintained that it would not by itself damage the carefully built relationship between Israel and Jordan, one of only two Arab states that has ended is official state of war with Israel and signed a peace treaty. The other one is Egypt.

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