JERUSALEM -- Israeli police shot to death at least 19 Palestinians on the Temple Mount yesterday, injured more than 140 others and sent thousands of Jews worshiping at the Western Wall fleeing in panic to escape violence that turned holy sites into battlefields littered with bodies.
Each side's worst fears about the other seemed to come true in the bloodiest clash in the city since Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967, as Palestinians threw rocks at Jews praying at Judaism's holiest site and police firing their guns stormed into the area around one of Islam's most venerated mosques.
Police arrested 120 Palestinians for rioting, clamped curfews on Palestinian refugee camps and the major cities of the West Bank and sealed off the Gaza Strip, to which rioting spread. Among those arrested at the scene was Faisal Husseini, the most prominent Palestinian leader in East Jerusalem.
In the occupied territories, the rioting killed three more Palestinians. A Jewish cab driver also was found shot to death.
The number of Arab casualties in Jerusalem remained in dispute. Police said 20 Israeli civilians and six policemen were injured, BTC none seriously.
Israeli authorities blamed Palestinians for starting the clash and maintained that the police had responded properly.
"The police acted responsibly and with reserve," said Ronnie Milo, minister of police. "The police had no other way to act when thousands were rioting and attacking policemen as well."
Police Commissioner Yaacov Terner told Israel army radio, "They burned the police station. There was no policeman who wasn't stoned. Their lives were in real danger. They had no other way but to respond the way they did."
Palestinians maintained that the clash began when police fired tear gas at them.
"We were sitting on the ground, many thousands of us, and we heard the bombs of gas, 20, 30 of them," said Fouez abu Snena, an electrician who was one of the injured. "Then everybody attacked the police."
The battle was sparked in part by religious fervor. Clashes began at 10:45 a.m. on the day when a group of ultra-nationalistic Israelis planned to carry out their annual attempt to walk onto the Temple Mount and lay the foundation stone for a new Jewish temple.
Each year, the several dozen members of the Temple Mount Faithful announce their pilgrimage -- to the consternation of most Israelis and the Moslem community. Each year police turn them away, but each year their well-publicized march ignites Palestinian protests.
Several weeks ago, Israel's high court refused the zealots permission for their march. Their leader, Gershon Salomon, said they did not try to lay the stone but were pelted with rocks when they marched to the Old City carrying Israeli flags.
This time, an extra ingredient that influenced events was the presence of unusually large numbers of Palestinians and Jews in very nearly the same place.
Thousands of Palestinians had begun gathering on the Temple Mount at dawn. In sermons last week, Moslem prayer leaders had called on their followers to come there to block the arrival of the Temple Mount Faithful.
Directly below the Temple Mount, thousands of Jews coming for special prayers packed the plaza in front of the Western Wall, the only remnant of the temple complex destroyed in 70 A.D. Tens of thousands of other Israelis were streaming into the city for parades in advance of the Jewish harvest festival, Succoth.
According to Israeli authorities, the troubles began when the Palestinians began throwing rocks down on the Jewish worshipers in front of the Western Wall. At the same time, authorities said, Palestinians surrounded a small building that served as the border police headquarters atop the mount and set it ablaze. A lone policeman ran out and was beaten by the crowd.
Mr. Milo accused Palestinians of having planned the attack.
"At a time when thousands of people were near the wall, thousands of Arabs started showering the place with big rocks," Mr. Milo said. "The quantity of rocks was enormous."
Mr. Milo added, "I'm sorry there has been loss of life, but the accusations should be directed towards those who organized events. I think the work of the police was correct. There is no room to doubt their action."
Mr. Abu Snena said people had come to protect their shrines.
"All the Moslems came to defend Al Aqsa," he said. "All of us decided we must defend the mosque, and if the Jews enter, they must enter on our bodies."
After the tear gas, Israeli police turned to rubber bullets and live ammunition, and the toll mounted.
For the next several hours, ambulances made dozens of trips from the walled Old City to Mokassed and Augusta Victoria hospitals, both of them mobbed by anxious crowds waiting for news of relatives and lining up to donate blood. The crowd briefly dispersed at Mokassed when police there fired tear gas that seeped into the hospital.
Mr. Salomon of the Temple Mount Faithful denied he had provoked the Arabs and said he planned further attempts to lay a foundation stone. He told Reuters: "The occupation of the Temple Mount by Arabs must be finished."
Jewish tradition holds that the Temple Mount is where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac, his son. It is where the First and Second Temples stood, until the latter structure was destroyed by the Romans.
Moslems revere the same site as the place where the prophet Mohammed flew to heaven on his winged horse. His trip is commemorated by Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which together are the third holiest shrines in Islam following the cities of Mecca and Medina.