Published on Saturday, September 30, 2000 in the Guardian of London
Bedlam Strikes The Holy City
by Suzanne Goldenberg
The most hallowed ground in the holy city - and the volatile core of the Israeli-Arab conflict - was doused in blood yesterday as rioting between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police left four Palestinians dead, and as many as 200 wounded.
The violence erupted at the close of afternoon prayers when Israeli riot police stormed the Haram al-Sharif, the site of the Dome of the Rock that is the third-holiest shrine in Islam, firing live rounds and rubber bullets at stone-throwing Palestinian youths.
Dozens of police, including the Jerusalem police chief, were hit by stones after the violence was stoked by the arrival of more than 22,000 people for prayer.
With peace negotiations locked for weeks over the fate of the Haram - which Jews claim as the site of their destroyed temple - and Israel mourning a border policeman who was killed by a member of the Palestinian security forces earlier yesterday, the clashes could escalate out of control; violence also broke out in several areas of the West Bank.
It was the second consecutive day of rioting on the Haram, following the provocative visit there on Thursday by the leader of the hardline Likud party, Ariel Sharon, in a blatant display of Israel's iron grip on the heart of Muslim Jerusalem.
By the time the muezzin called the faithful to prayer yesterday, tempers were menacingly high, with Palestinians bridling at the large Israeli presence on their hallowed ground. "It is forbidden for them to come inside with their sticks. This makes our young men explode," said Sami Bibi, who lives in east Jerusalem, occupied illegally by Israel since 1967. "When I was praying they were hanging over my head."
The Israelis say scuffles broke out when Palestinians began raining stones on the heads of Jewish worshippers at the Wailing Wall, below the Haram. They soon turned ugly.
"If you went toward the gate they would shoot at you. People were just trying to get out and they shut the gate," said Israr Hussain, a tourist from Halifax.
"As soon as the prayers finished, they started firing," said Abu Assab Khader, whose right calf was pierced by a rubber-coated bullet. "They shot at us like dogs - no, flies."
There were reports that the Israelis used live ammunition.
"I saw two or three people with their brains outside their head," said a doctor at the nearby Muqassad hospital, who would not give his name. "That was not [caused by] rubber bullets."
The Israeli version of events was different, with a government spokesman, Moshe Fogel, blaming Muslim clerics for setting events in motion with incendiary prayers.
As the day wore on, the rioting spread to other neighbourhoods of Arab east Jerusalem, and outlying villages, where five tourists were hurt when their bus was stoned. Street violence also rocked Palestinian-ruled areas, with clashes reported in the West Bank towns of Bethlehem and Ramallah, and in Gaza. Crowds of Palestinians, some clutching iron bars, took to the roads, setting fire to Israeli cars.
Palestinian radio called the two days of clashes on the Haram the start of "the battle for Jerusalem".
Israel's prime minister, Ehud Barak, said they were "extremely serious". "I spoke to [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat today and I made it clear to him that attacks such as this are totally unacceptable and that we expect the Palestinian authority to do everything in its power, using all the means at its disposal, against perpetrators of terrorist acts," he said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000