JERUSALEM -- An Israeli human rights group issued a detailed report yesterday accusing Israeli police of having fired automatic weapons last week at Palestinians on Jerusalem's Temple Mount even when the lives of policemen and worshipers were not in danger.
The rights group B'tselem also confirmed reports by Palestinians that police fired on ambulances and medical workers. It collected affidavits from a nurse who was hit by three bullets while she was in an ambulance, a second nurse who was shot in the chest while he was carrying medical equipment and a physician who was in a hospital maternity ward when a tear gas canister crashed through a window.
"It is our impression that there was no firing control whatsoever, that no command to open fire was given from any single source and that no single source was on hand who had the ability to stop the shooting," B'tselem concluded. "Police and border police fired automatic bursts of live ammunition indiscriminately into the crowd."
Much of the firing, B'tselem said, occurred after Jewish worshipers had been evacuated.
"The investigation reached the conclusion that shooting by security forces was indiscriminate; much shooting was done automatically from the hips," B'tselem spokesman Yuval Ginbar said.
The shooting left 21 Arabs dead and 200 wounded, B'tselem said. About 20 Jewish worshipers were injured by stones, and six policemen also sustained injuries.
B'tselem, an independent group that monitors Israeli actions in the occupied territories, said that its findings were based on statements from witnesses and official statements but that it lacked sufficient accounts from witnesses to develop a complete chronology of events.
[B'tselem researchers told Reuters that they had had access to Israeli security sources in preparing their report.]
The report asked the government to appoint an independent board of inquiry with authority to compel witnesses to testify. The panel, which would be headed by a judge, would replace the three-member commission appointed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Findings of the existing commission will have no legal basis in parliament or the courts.
"The prime minister, the police minister and other ranking political figures have publicly communicated to the commission the message and the expectation that it will find that the security forces acted properly," B'tselem said.
The group said it was unsure what triggered the violence but suggested that it was the rumor that a group of Jewish extremists would try to enter the Temple Mount. What is not open to question, the report said, is that a small number of the 3,000 to 5,000 Palestinians on the Temple Mount threw stones at the 45 to 50 police stationed there and that police responded by firing canisters of tear gas.
At that moment the police were in genuine danger as the crowd began to charge toward them and to throw everything at hand, B'tselem said. Police withdrew from the Temple Mount while several lookouts began firing live ammunition, causing the first casualties.
B'tselem found that much of the violence that followed was the result of a police misunderstanding. One Arab policeman remained inside the compound, safely hidden in an office. But his colleagues believed he had been trapped and perhaps killed.
At the same time, Palestinians burned a small police station on the Temple Mount, moved closer to the edge of the Temple Mount and began to throw stones onto the plaza in front of the Western Wall.
About 200 police rushed back into the compound firing automatic weapons, B'tselem said. Police continued firing for 30 minutes to more than an hour -- accounts differ on the duration of the shooting. But whatever the exact duration, the police continued firing well after they had broken up any threat to their lives, the group reported.
"The firing continued even while the crowd was dispersing in every direction and many were fleeing, as well as at the stage in which ambulances and medical teams arrived at the scene," B'tselem concluded.
While there was no government reaction to the group's report, Foreign Minister David Levy and other Israeli officials stuck to the government's version of events, which blames the Arab demonstrators for the violence.