Bloodbath at the Dome of the Rock

Fighting erupts at Jerusalem's holy site. Four Palestinians dead, 100 wounded, dozens of Israeli police injured
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At least four Palestinians were killed and 100 wounded in Jerusalem yesterday after Israeli snipers opened fire with rifles on Palestinians battling with police in the grounds of the 7th-century Dome of the Rock.

At least four Palestinians were killed and 100 wounded in Jerusalem yesterday after Israeli snipers opened fire with rifles on Palestinians battling with police in the grounds of the 7th-century Dome of the Rock.

Many of the wounded were struck by steel-coated rubber bullets fired by Israeli police as they came under a shower of stones around the walls but doctors said that at least three of the dead had been hit by live ammunition.

The head of the Israeli police, Yehuda Wilk, later confirmed that Israeli snipers had fired into the crowds - a tactic used by Israeli troops at the height of their occupation of Lebanon in 1983 - when Palestinians were "felt to be endangering the lives of officers".

Two of the Palestinians died during surgery at the Arab Makassed hospital in east Jerusalem; a third was dead on arrival. Hospital authorities said 66 Palestinians were treated for rubber bullet injuries, including six who were in serious condition. Another 30 were taken to the Augusta Victoria hospital. Dozens of policemen, including the head of the Jerusalem police department, were injured by stones thrown by Palestinians.

The killings come almost exactly 10 years after armed Israeli police killed 19 Palestinian demonstrators and wounded another 140 in an incident at exactly the same spot - a slaughter that almost lost the United States its Arab support in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War.

Israeli officials yesterday claimed that Palestinians, provoked by sermons at Friday prayers, had attacked Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall, part of which forms a wall of the adjacent Al Aqsa mosque. But Hanan Ashrawi, a respected Palestinian leader, said later that this was untrue and that Israeli police had invaded the grounds of the Dome of the Rock.

Whenever there has been serious violence at the Haram as-Sharif, the Dome of the Rock - or the Temple Mount as it is known to Jews - Arabs and Jews have blamed each other for the subsequent deaths. In 1929, Palestinian Arabs and Jews fought on the same ground and again in the Thirties when Jews also claimed speeches by the grand mufti of Jerusalem - who later fled to Nazi Germany - had provoked the violence.

The deep spirituality which invests this dangerous piece of real estate, however, should not conceal the real causes of yesterday's terrible events: the highly provocative visit of the Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, to the Muslim holy places on Thursday and the belief among ordinary Palestinians that the peace process is a sham which will deprive them not only of east Jerusalem but of a viable Palestinian state. If Palestinians truly believed the "peace" they were offered was just, there would have been no stone-throwing at the mosques yesterday.

As the day continued, stone-throwing and shooting spread to the West Bank and Gaza. Near Qalqaliya, a Palestinian policeman shot dead an Israeli soldier and wounded another - a day after the killing of an Israeli policeman. The Palestinian was arrested by Yasser Arafat's security men but no explanation was given for the shooting. The Israeli soldiers he shot were apparently members of the same joint Israeli-Palestinian patrol. The arrested policeman is expected to stand trial within days.

Mr Sharon, loathed by Palestinians for his role in the massacre of up to 2,000 Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Lebanon 18 years ago - he was held indirectly responsible by the subsequent Israeli inquiry - responded pugnaciously to accusations that he had deliberately provoked the violence.

"The State of Israel," he told CNN, "cannot afford that an Israeli citizen will not be able to visit part of his country, not to speak about the holiest place for the Jewish people all around the world."

He did not, however, explain why he should have chosen this moment - at the lowest point of the "peace process" and only hours after a friendly meeting between Mr Arafat and the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak - to have toured the area of the mosques above the Western Wall.

Israel's claim that Jerusalem is its united and eternal capital lay at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations which collapsed at Camp David in July. The Haram as-Sharif mosque has been in Muslim possession since the Muslim conquests, while the Western Wall became waqf, Islamic endowment property, 500 years ago.

Muslims subsequently regarded the presence of Jews at the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall) - the western part of Herod's Temple destroyed by the Romans, where Jews went to remember in prayer the ancient days of the temple - as a privilege, not a right. When Israeli troops captured the Jewish quarter of the Old City in 1967, they found that a third of its buildings had been demolished by the Jordanians but rejoiced at the recovery of the wall.

General Mose Dayan, who handed the mosques back to Muslim control a week after their capture, came to the wall and said Jews had "returned to their holiest of holy places, never to part from it again".