Israel unrepentant after killings at Muslim shrine

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The Independent Online
Hopes of restoring any remnants of the tattered peace in the Middle- East seemed increasingly unlikely last night after another day of violence and political intransigence.

The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu remained unrepentant about his decision to open the archaelogical tunnel that runs beneath the Wailing Wall, although it was temporarily closed yesterday, and blamed Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, for the violence.

Yesterday's violence began when Israeli soldiers killed three Palestinians and wounded 50 after they opened fire on worshippers at al-Aqsa, the third holiest Muslim shrine, in Jerusalem.

The incident at the end of Friday prayers ended hopes that fighting which flared between Israelis and Palestinians on Thursday might die away. In other incidents six Palestinians and two Israeli border policemen were killed.

The shooting on Temple Mount started when several thousand Israeli police and soldiers who had been stationed in and around the gates of the compound opened fire, saying that Palestinians were throwing stones at Jews worshipping at the Western Wall on which al-Aqsa mosque sits.

"Most of us were praying inside the mosque itself so we did not know what was happening when the firing started," said Khlil Abed Rabbo, a Palestinian journalist. "The crowd was not very big and most of them were old people or women because the Israeli troops had not allowed Palestinian young men to reach al-Aqsa."

Mr Arafat accused Israeli police of attacking the worshippers in Jerusalem, despite what he said were late-night telephone assurances by Mr Netanyahu that he was interested in trying to cool the situation in the city.

"What is going on is against what we had agreed upon last night," Mr Arafat said. "The attack against the worshippers inside the mosque is something we cannot accept."

News of the Jerusalem confrontation - in which police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at stone-throwers - triggered fresh gun battles between Palestinian police and Israeli troops in West Bank and Gaza.

In one of the worst clashes, Israeli helicopter gunships fired at Palestinian gunmen in the southern Gaza Strip, and Israel radio said tanks were surrounding the area. Israel radio said shots were being fired from Egyptian territory, apparently by Palestinians. Six Israeli soldiers, including a senior officer, were reported wounded.

The battles signalled that Mr Arafat's control over his angry people, and especially over the 30,000 armed men under his control, was slipping away.

Sources close to Mr Arafat said that after the latest fighting, the Palestinian leader issued fresh orders to all commanders to stop any attacks on Israelis, if necessary by force.

Throughout the day, Arafat's Voice of Palestine had been broadcasting appeals for calm, but tens of thousands took to the streets anyhow, marched toward Israeli positions and hurled stones.

At a combative news conference, Mr Netanyahu repeated his contention that Mr Arafat had cynically used the archaeological tunnel - the Herodian retaining wall of the ruined Second Jewish Temple, now Islam's third holiest site - as an excuse to stir up Arab passions against Israel and force his government into peace concessions. The National Security Minister, Avigdor Kahalani, said the tunnel would reopen soon and remain open "every day and every holiday".

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, yesterday spearheaded criticism of Israel at a tense meeting of the United Nations Security Council, laying the blame on the Israeli government and urging it to take concrete steps to defuse the crisis. Mr Rifkind told the session that the violence had been "predictable".

Speaking to The Independent, Marwan Barghouti, a senior lieutenant of Yasser Arafat, said Israel can expect a wave of revenge suicide bomb attacks. He said that it was almost inevitable that Hamas, whose suicide bombs killed 58 people in Israel earlier this year, would want to capitalise on Palestinian anger.