JERUSALEM – Israeli police stormed the grounds of Islam's third-holiest shrine Friday, firing stun grenades and tear gas to disperse thousands of Muslim worshippers who hurled stones, bottles and trash in an eruption of outrage over Israeli renovation work nearby.
The clash at the end of noon prayers came after days of mounting tensions over the work and raised concern that protests at the site could spread to the West Bank and Gaza, as they did at the start of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000. No serious injuries were reported.
About 200 police streamed on to the hilltop compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, to try to quell rioting over the repair work on a centuries-old ramp, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Clouds of tear gas rose up at the holy site and stun grenades set off sharp booms. A doctor treating some of the injured, Dr. Khalil el-Baba, said officers fired rubber bullets at protesters, but police denied that.
Riot police with their helmet visors pulled down scuffled with Muslim worshippers, some of them middle-aged or elderly. Medics tended several injured people lying on the stone pavement. Jewish worshippers were evacuated from the Western Wall plaza at the foot of the compound.
The situation grew especially volatile after some 150 protesters barricaded themselves inside the Al Aqsa mosque at the complex.
But police did not enter the mosque. The protesters began to leave about 90 minutes after they holed up inside the building, following negotiations between officers and Muslim representatives, negotiators said.
Three hours after the initial clash, however, police and demonstrators were still skirmishing in the narrow alleyways and on the rooftops of the Old City. Near Lion's Gate, police fired stun grenades after teenagers threw stones, iron bars and at least one firebomb at them, police said. The cobblestone walkways in the area were littered with rubble and vegetables thrown by protesters.
Even as the violence subsided, passions remained inflamed.
"There is no justification for what they did today, and we think it was pre-orchestrated to bring fears to the spirits of the worshippers angry about the Israeli dig," said Adnan Husseini, chairman of the Waqf, the Muslim trust that oversees the shrine.
Seventeen protesters and 19 police officers were slightly injured in the melee at the mosque, and 17 rioters were arrested, Rosenfeld said.
Israeli authorities have insisted that the replacement of a ramp leading to the compound, which was damaged in a 2004 snowstorm, would not harm the holy site, about 60 yards way. But as work began earlier this week, it drew fierce protests in the Arab world, where many leaders accused Israel of plotting to harm Muslim holy sites.
Israeli officials suggested that the protests were designed to draw attention away from internal Palestinian problems. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel was completely transparent about its work plans "yet extremist elements with a hateful agenda have cynically provoked violence by deliberately spreading mistruths about what we're doing."
Mohammed Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem speaking by telephone from inside the walled compound, called Friday's events "an aggression against the mosque."
When Israel opened a tunnel alongside the compound in 1996, it touched off clashes that killed 80 people. In 2000, when then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the site, the ensuing riots were followed by years of violence.
In the West Bank, youths hurled stones at Israeli security forces at a major checkpoint leading into Jerusalem and near the town of Qalqiliya. Scheduled protest marches went ahead peacefully elsewhere in the West Bank, and demonstrations were planned in Gaza.
"This is a great danger. We can't remain silent," said Nizar Rayan, a Hamas leader, at a celebration of a power-sharing agreement Hamas signed with the rival Fatah faction in Saudi Arabia on Thursday.
"We ask God to unite the Palestinians, with their rifles and tunnels, to be able to cleanse Al Aqsa of the ... excavations," Rayan said.
The tunnels he referred to are tunnels Palestinian militants use to smuggle weapons into Gaza.
In the northern Israeli town of Nazareth, about 5,000 Israeli Arabs marched to oppose the work at the mosque.
The anger spread to other parts of the Muslim world as well. Anti-riot police scuffled with demonstrators in Cairo as Muslims marched in Jordan and Lebanon to express outrage over the renovation work. In Syria, some 3,000 Palestinians marched in a refugee camp near Damascus, carrying Palestinian flags and pictures of the al-Aqsa mosque, and chanting anti-Israel slogans.
The complex, home to the golden-capped Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa mosque, is sacred for Muslims, who believe that it is where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
The compound is venerated by Jews as the site of their biblical temples.