Saturday, 30 September 2000

Seven killed during riot in Jerusalem

Palestinian leaders call for general strike after clashes on eve of Jewish New Year

September 30, 2000

By Matthew Kalman

JERUSALEM -- At least seven Palestinian demonstrators were killed and 220 Palestinians were injured when Israeli riot police stormed the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem yesterday, leading the Palestinian Authority to call for a general strike today.

Forty-four Israeli police officers, including the Jerusalem chief, were hit by stones in the worst bloodshed in four years at the walled compound that is at the centre of the deadlock in Mideast talks.

Thousands of Muslims barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa mosque as sporadic stone-throwing and violence spread through East Jerusalem and the West Bank on the eve of the Jewish New Year.

The violence quickly spread to Jerusalem neighbourhoods and the West Bank, further dimming prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said the situation was very serious and that Israel expected the Palestinian Authority and regional Muslim leadership, which supervises the Temple Mount, to restore calm. "Otherwise the Israeli police will have to get involved and act, even though we don't want to," Mr. Barak said.

Yesterday's disturbances began as thousands of Muslims leaving Friday prayers hurled bottles, masonry blocks and iron bars onto Jewish worshippers and police at the Western Wall 15 metres below. Israeli police struggled to clear the area by the wall, which was crowded with people offering prayers on the eve of the Jewish New Year, which began last night.

About 25 Israelis, including Jerusalem police Chief Yair Yitzhaki, were treated in hospital for head wounds after being hit from above.

The Muslim demonstrators then tried to break into the plaza around the Western Wall. Israeli riot police forced them back and tried to clear the Temple Mount compound. They opened fire on the demonstrators with rubber bullets, killing seven Palestinians and wounding more than 200 others, according to Palestinian medical officials.

The call for a general strike came from Palestinian information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo over the Voice of Palestine radio, which said only official bodies, such as ministries, would be exempt.

The Voice of Palestine Radio reported that seven of those injured had lost an eye.

There were further outbreaks of violence as the afternoon wore on.

In Jerusalem neighbourhoods close to Palestinian areas, youths threw stones at Israeli cars and set fire to an Israeli ambulance. In Bethlehem, demonstrators threw stones at Israeli soldiers and burned tires. In Nablus, Israeli security forces moved out a group of religious students.

"We hold the Israeli government fully responsible for today's massacre," said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"On the instructions of President Arafat, we have asked the United States to intercede with Israel to stop this bloodshed."

Abu Ala, speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, told the Voice of Palestine: "The Israelis have gone mad. What happened today could destroy the Middle East peace process. Israeli extremists are trying to derail the process."

The clashes, the worst in Jerusalem for four years, came the day after violence broke out during a controversial tour of the Temple Mount by hawkish Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon.

The Temple Mount is the key stumbling-block in peace talks that have dragged on between Israelis and Palestinians for more than seven years.

Each side wants control over the site, which Jews regard as the location of Solomon's Temple and Muslims believe is the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven.

The temple was destroyed by the Romans, and a mosque has stood on the site since the eighth century.

Earlier yesterday, a Palestinian police officer shot and killed an Israeli policeman during a joint Israeli-Palestinian security patrol in the West Bank town of Kalkilya.

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