JERUSALEM: Hundreds of Israeli police stormed the grounds of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on Friday, firing stun grenades and tear gas to disperse thousands of Muslim worshippers who hurled stones, bottles and trash in an eruption of outrage over Israeli renovation work near the disputed Old City site.
The clash at the end of noon prayers came after days of mounting tensions over the work and raised concern that protests at the site could spread to the West Bank and Gaza, as they did at the start of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000. No serious injuries were reported.
About 200 police streamed on to the hilltop compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, to try to halt a protest march before it even began.
Clouds of tear gas rose up at the holy site and stun grenades set off sharp booms. A doctor treating some of the injured, Dr. Khalil el-Baba, said officers fired rubber bullets at protesters, but police denied that.
Riot police with the visors of their helmets pulled down scuffled with worshippers, some of them middle-aged or elderly. Medics tended several injured people lying on the stone pavement. And Jewish worshippers were evacuated from the Western Wall plaza at the foot of the compound.
The situation grew especially volatile after some 150 protesters barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa mosque at the complex.
But police did not enter the mosque, and about 90 minutes after they holed up inside, the protesters began to leave, following negotiations between officers and Muslim representatives, negotiators said.
At that point, police pronounced themselves in full control of the situation.
But three hours after the initial clash, police and demonstrators were still playing cat and mouse in the narrow alleyways and on the rooftops of the Old City.
Near Lion s Gate, police fired stun grenades after teenagers threw stones, iron bars and at least one firebomb at them, police said. The cobblestone walkways in the area were littered with rubble and vegetables thrown by protesters.
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, where Christians believe Jesus was led to his crucifixion.
Even as the violence subsided, passions remained inflamed.
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.
Israeli authorities have insisted that the replacement of a centuries-old ramp leading to the compound, which was damaged in a 2004 snowstorm, would not harm the holy site, about 60 m way. But as work began earlier this week, it drew fierce protests in the Arab world, where many leaders accused Israel of plotting to harm Muslim holy sites.
This is an aggression against the mosque, Mohammed Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, said by telephone from inside the walled compound. 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.
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.
In the West Bank, youths hurled stones at Israeli security forces at a major checkpoint leading into Jerusalem and near the town of Qalqiliya. Scheduled protest marches went ahead peacefully elsewhere in the West Bank, and demonstrations were planned in Gaza.
This is a great danger. We can t remain silent, said Nizar Rayan, a Hamas leader, at a celebration of a power-sharing agreement Hamas signed with the rival Fatah faction in Saudi Arabia on Thursday.
We ask God to unite the Palestinians, with their rifles and tunnels, to be able to cleanse Al-Aqsa of the …excavations, Rayan said.
The tunnels he referred to are tunnels Palestinian militants use to smuggle weapons into Gaza.
In the northern Israeli town of Nazareth, about 5,000 Israeli Arabs marched to oppose the work at the mosque.
More than 1,000 police were deployed outside the town but no incidents were reported.
Seventeen protesters and 19 police officers were slightly injured in the melee, and 17 rioters were arrested, Rosenfeld said. Officers shut all of the Old City gates leading to the complex, and disconnected loudspeakers there that they said were used to incite worshippers.
The complex, home to the golden-capped Dome of the Rock shrine and Al-Aqsa mosque, is sacred for Muslims, who believe that it is where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.
The compound is venerated by Jews as the site of their biblical temples.
Police had braced for possible riots during the prayers, a frequent flashpoint for clashes, deploying 3,000 officers around the city – about triple the usual number.
Israeli officials have said Muslim extremists are using the renovation work as a pretext to stoke anger against Israel. Speaking during a visit to Spain on Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni accused political extremists of trying to exploit this situation.