Israel rejects criticism of killings, tightens hold on Temple Mount

October 10, 1990|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Rejecting criticism of the police shootings that killed 19 Palestinians, Israeli authorities tightened their grip on the Temple Mount yesterday by sealing it off from worshipers and arresting a Moslem prayer leader.

While the United States and other countries criticized what they said was the excessive use of force, Israeli officials maintained that police had acted properly in the clash at the Temple Mount and sought to cope with aftereffects that continued to spread.

Yesterday, police closed the Temple Mount to all visitors for the first time in memory and fired tear gas after scuffling with would-be worshipers trying to reach the Al Aqsa mosque for midmorning prayers. Police later used tear gas at the entrance of the mosque itself.

Among those overcome by the gas was the mufti of Jerusalem, 80-year-old Sheik Saad al-Din al-Hami, the chief Moslem cleric in Israel and the occupied territories. He was hospitalized after complaining of chest pains.

Authorities also arrested the mufti's chief assistant, Sheik Mohammed Said Jamal. Police alleged that he had incited Moslems to throw stones Monday from the Temple Mount onto Jews worshiping at the Western Wall, the event that police maintain ignited the clash.

Protests against the shooting spread to the villages and towns of Israel's 750,000 Arab citizens, who observed the first day of a two-day general strike.

Army radio reported that Israeli Arabs marched peacefully in Haifa and Um al Fahm but smashed store windows in Nazareth and fought with police there for much of the day. Police reported incidents of stone-throwing in Taibe and said two policemen there were injured.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip maintained a strike of their own, while all refugee camps and most major cities were kept under army curfews. The Gaza Strip, where two Palestinians died in clashes with the army Monday night, remained a closed zone.

Monday produced the highest death toll from any single incident of civil unrest since Israel captured East Jerusalem 23 years ago. It was all the more explosive for occurring at an intersection of sites venerated by both Moslems and Jews.

In their accounts of events, Palestinians and Israeli authorities agree on little more than that the violence occurred because each side was convinced that the sanctity of its holy places was being threatened. And each side insists that the violence was part of a plan prepared long in advance by the other.

Each side also accused the other of having timed the violence to take advantage of the Persian Gulf crisis caused by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Palestinians said Israel had plotted to strike while world attention was diverted from the area, while Israelis said Palestinians had plotted to link their own cause with gulf events.

For Palestinians, the immediate threat came from the several dozen members of the Temple Mount Faithful, an ultranationalist group with the expressed aim of wresting from Moslem hands the Temple Mount, which Moslems know as Haram es-Sharif, or noble enclosure.

Members of the Temple Mount Faithful had announced their intention to try to enter the Temple Mount Monday. Although police had assured Moslem leaders that the Israelis would be stopped, prayer leaders asked worshipers to gather to protect the site that tradition holds as the place from which the prophet Mohammed traveled to heaven and then returned to earth.

"We heard that fanatic Jews would attack the mosque," said a 28-year-old Palestinian who was later wounded by police gunfire. "A lot of Arabs came there. We were talking, women and men in different areas, and then soldiers began shooting tear gas toward the men."

For Israelis, the threat came from the Palestinians gathered on the Temple Mount, directly above the Western Wall, the only remnant of the Second Temple that was destroyed in A.D. 70 and the most venerated site in Judaism.

Police said the Palestinians stockpiled stones above the wall as part of a plan to attack the Jews. That claim is difficult to prove or disprove, since the Temple Mount itself is paved with stones, and since many times in the past Palestinians have thrown rocks at police and down onto Jews in front of the Western Wall.

Police said the clash began when Palestinians began throwing stones onto the Jewish worshipers. Police maintain that only then did they fire tear gas and rubber bullets.

Police say that a muezzin, the cleric who calls Moslems to prayer, then incited the crowd to attack the police. In the police version of events, Palestinians managed to lock the gates leading to the Temple Mount and thus trap the police already there. Their lives threatened, the police fired live ammunition.

Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, the city's main promoter of Arab-Israeli coexistence, blamed Palestinians for "a planned and organized provocation" but also criticized Israelis for talking of building additional housing in Arab neighborhoods. Such remarks, he said, "exacerbated the Arabs' deepest fears and anger."

Israeli analysts and newspapers stopped short of directly criticizing police and instead questioned whether the police stationed a sufficiently large force on the Temple Mount.

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