JERUSALEM – Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher (search) returned home after his one-day peace mission to Israel deteriorated into a shoving match with Palestinian extremists that landed him in the hospital.
The confrontation Monday afternoon at the Al Aqsa Mosque (search), Islam's third-holiest site, came after Maher heard a strong indication from the Israelis that while they would not sign a truce with Palestinian militants, they would abide by a cease-fire.
The violence Maher was trying to stop continued Monday. In the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian threw a grenade at Israeli soldiers in Gaza during a firefight, killing two officers, the army said. The attacker and another armed Palestinian were killed, the military said.
In a call to The Associated Press, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a group loosely linked to Yasser Arafat's (search) Fatah faction, and the Islamic Jihad took joint responsibility.
Early Tuesday, about 40 Israeli tanks and armored vehicles entered the Rafah refugee camp on the Gaza-Egypt border, Palestinians said. A 52-year-old Palestinian was killed and five other people were wounded by Israeli gunfire, hospital officials said.
Maher appeared badly shaken as bodyguards and Israeli police whisked him out of the mosque compound, while protesters shouted and hurled shoes -- a deep insult in Islamic culture. The guards supported Maher by his shoulders as he grimaced in pain and clutched his chest.
Witnesses heard him gasping, "I'm going to choke, I'm going to choke," as he exited the compound in a bedlam of shoving and shouting through a gate above the Western Wall, a Jewish holy site.
Israeli rescue workers treated him for a half hour before he was transferred by limousine to Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital. He was released five hours after the incident and flew home.
In a phone call to Maher at the hospital, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon quipped, "I understand you will stay with us a while."
It was a rare assault on an official from a Muslim country at the site known to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif, revered as the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Jews honor the site as the Temple Mount, which housed the biblical Jewish Temples.
Witnesses said the protesters, several dozen in number, were members of a small extremist group called "Islamic Liberation Movement." They shouted at Maher, "You're not welcome here!" and charged that Egypt was helping Israel oppress the Palestinians. "You are collaborating with the killers of Muslims," one shouted.
Israeli police said they arrested seven suspects in the attack on Maher.
In Cairo, President Hosni Mubarak's office issued a statement denouncing the "irresponsible" attack, pledging that it "will not derail Egypt's efforts to achieve a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli talks, with the effective participation of other peace-loving partners."
The Palestinian Authority -- whose leaders did not meet with Maher during this trip -- also denounced the attack.
"We condemn in the strongest possible terms the assault on Mr. Maher. Mr. Maher's visit to Israel was fully coordinated with Palestinian leadership, and the aim of the visit is to break the vicious cycle of violence and revive the peace process," said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who had met with Maher a few hours earlier, said the incident showed "there are still extremist elements who oppose any peace efforts between Arabs and Israel."
Maher's visit was his first to Israel in more than two years. In 1979, Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but relations have deteriorated during three years of a bloody Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In recent weeks Egypt -- along with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia -- has been trying in vain to coax a cease-fire declaration from Palestinian militant groups. Part of the problem, officials close to the talks have said, has been the inability to assure the militants that Israel would not continue to target them.
In a potential shift that could breathe new life into the efforts, Sharon indicated to Maher that Israel would halt activity against the militants if there is a cease-fire. "We will respond to quiet with quiet," said a senior source in the prime minister's office, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Formally, Israel demands that the Palestinians dismantle the militant groups instead of negotiating a truce, according to terms of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, but Israeli officials had hinted in the past that a truce would lead them to at least limit their military operations against Palestinians.
The source said Maher indicated that the talks could lead to a summit between Sharon and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- something Mubarak has avoided since the Sharon, a career hard-liner, came to power in 2001.