Violence flares as Sharon visits disputed holy site

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The Independent Online

The leader of the hardline opposition in Israel yesterday toured a Jerusalem holy site which is hotly contested in the peace talks, sparking clashes that left scores of police officers and several Palestinian protesters injured.

The leader of the hardline opposition in Israel yesterday toured a Jerusalem holy site which is hotly contested in the peace talks, sparking clashes that left scores of police officers and several Palestinian protesters injured.

Barely visible behind a thick wall of Israeli riot troops, Ariel Sharon, the leader of the Likud party, said he demonstrated that Israel is in charge of a walled compound revered by Muslims and Jews alike. The Palestinians said the tour had underscored Israel's lack of control over what is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif, or "noble sanctuary".

The moment Mr Sharon and six other Likud politicians left the site, to shouts of "murderer, go home", hundreds of Palestinians broke into the compound and hurled rocks, bottles, chairs and rubbish bins at officers who beat back the crowd with clubs and fired rubber-coated steel pellets. More than two dozen Israeli officers were injured. Three Palestinians were struck by rubber bullets, among them a teenage boy with his school bag on his back.

The clashes, and others in the West Bank, served as a reminder of what could be in store if peace talks fail. Palestine Kamel, 23, a student, said: "This is a message to the Palestinian delegation not to make concessions on Jerusalem." She and fellow protesters hurled stones at Israeli soldiers near the West Bank town of Ramallah.

The Israeli and Palestinian teams are in Washington this week, holding separate talks with US mediators who have been trying to resolve the main sticking point - rival claims to the Jerusalem compound. Both sides have said they would not allow the other to be the lone sovereign of the area but have been unable to agree on a compromise formula.

Mr Sharon's visit to the sacred compound was his first as opposition leader. The former defence minister has forged close ties with ultra-Orthodox religious parties who back his hawkish agenda. He denied trying to provoke the Palestinians. "The Temple Mount is in our hands and must stay in our hands," he said.

Faisal Husseini, a senior Palestinian official who was hit in the head by a club during a scuffle with police, said: "The way he [Sharon] entered, with thousands of police protecting him, was clear proof to all the world that the Israelis have no sovereignty here."

The clashes came only hours after assailants believed to be Islamic militants set off two bombs near an Israeli army convoy in the Gaza Strip, killing an Israeli soldier and wounding an officer. (AP)

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