JERUSALEM -- Israeli police raided the grounds of Islam's third-holiest shrine yesterday, chained the compound's gates behind them, and fired tear gas and stun grenades into a crowd of thousands of Muslim worshipers to quell a rock-throwing protest over Israeli excavation work nearby.
The clash outside Al Aqsa mosque set off protests across the Muslim world and scattered violence in the West Bank. It came a day after the rival Palestinian movements Hamas and Fatah agreed to end months of factional fighting, a step that some Israeli leaders believe could lead to stepped-up attacks against the Jewish state.
Yesterday's 90-minute battle erupted at the end of noon prayers and forced about 150 protesters to retreat into the mosque and set up barricades. The standoff ended when an Arab member of the Israeli parliament persuaded the protesters and the 200 police officers to leave the compound peacefully.
Seventeen Palestinians, some middle-aged and elderly, and 19 police officers were reported injured. Another 17 protesters were arrested in the violence in Jerusalem's Old City. Skirmishes between police and demonstrators continued for hours in the Old City's narrow streets.
Protests over the excavation had been building for days as clerics across the Muslim world hurled accusations, denied by Israel, that the digging at the site of a pedestrian ramp 60 meters from Al Aqsa would undermine the mosque's foundations.
Yesterday's incident gave Muslims a fresh grievance against the Jewish state: a forceful police operation, the first since 2004, in a compound revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from the site, also home to the golden-capped Dome of the Rock shrine.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police moved onto the compound's hilltop esplanade after a protest march outside the mosque had turned violent.
Mark Regev, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, accused "extremist elements with a hateful agenda" of provoking yesterday's violence.
But Sheik Mohammed Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, said police provoked the clash by attacking a crowd of several dozen demonstrators before the march ever started.
The mufti, Jerusalem's highest-ranking Islamic cleric, said he was finishing the prayer service in the mosque when he heard the sound of grenades and tear gas guns outside. He pleaded over the loudspeaker for police to go away.
"What the police did was a pre-orchestrated act to intimidate people who are angry about the digging," he said in an interview. "They started firing grenades before anyone had a chance to protest."
Young men in the crowd hurled stones, bottles and trash. Medics tended several injured people lying on the stone pavement.
The clash sparked rock-throwing incidents in Hebron and Qalquiliya and Bethlehem on the West Bank. There were peaceful marches across the West Bank and Gaza Strip on what Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, called "a day of Palestinian anger."
But there has been nothing on the scale of the rioting of 2000 that kicked off the Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada. The compound was the flash point of that uprising, provoked by an unwelcome visit there by Ariel Sharon, then Israel's opposition leader and later its prime minister.
Israel began the excavations Tuesday as a legally required step toward replacing a pedestrian ramp that leads to the compound's Mugrabi Gate. The ramp, weakened by a snowstorm and an earthquake, collapsed in 2004 and had been replaced by a temporary wooden structure. By law, any construction in the Old City must be preceded by digging to salvage artifacts.
The digging is taking place in the Jewish Quarter, just outside the compound, but Muslim leaders denounced it as an attempt to weaken the mosque. Israel's Antiquities Authority sought to assure them Tuesday that the excavation work does not touch the wall around the compound.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz had demanded in a memo to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week that the work be halted to avoid inflaming the Palestinians. The memo, leaked to Israeli media, noted that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is planning to visit Jerusalem next week to hold peace talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Olmert rejected the appeal and ordered the work to proceed.
Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.