JERUSALEM – Israeli forces stormed Jerusalem's holiest shrine Sunday, firing stun grenades to disperse hundreds of stone-throwing Palestinian protesters in a fresh eruption of violence at the most volatile spot in the Holy Land.
A wall of Israeli riot police behind plexiglass shields closed in on the crowd, sending many protesters — overwhelmingly young men — running for cover into the black-domed Al-Aqsa mosque. The mosque is one part of the compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
Dozens of protesters remained holed up inside the mosque for several hours, occasionally opening shuttered doors to throw objects at police. The Israeli forces did not enter the building, and the protesters eventually left peacefully and the compound was closed, police said. There were no serious injuries.
Israel's national police chief, David Cohen, accused a small group of Muslim extremists of trying to foment violence — echoing a charge made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu two weeks ago.
"The police will act with a strong hand against anyone who disrupts order on the Temple Mount and against those incite to riot," Cohen said.
Religious and nationalist sentiment connected with the site have made it a flashpoint for violence in the past. A visit in 2000 by Ariel Sharon, then an Israeli opposition leader, helped ignite deadly clashes that escalated into violence that engulfed Israel and the Palestinian territories for several years. Sharon was subsequently elected prime minister.
Sunday's clashes were the most intense in the past month of unrest around the compound. Frictions in recent weeks have stemmed largely from rumors among Palestinians about Israeli plans to allows Jews to pray at the site or to dig under the compound and harm the Muslim buildings there.
Israel has carried out numerous archaeological digs in nearby areas, but says the work does not threaten the compound. Two weeks ago, Netanyahu angrily dismissed accusations that Israel is trying to sabotage Muslim holy sites as "baseless" lies.
In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority condemned the Israeli police action.
"Jerusalem is a red line that Israel should not cross," said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas.
Muslim leaders had urged their followers to gather at the compound early Sunday in response to what they said was a planned "Jewish conquest."
Israeli police said the protesters hurled a fire bomb and poured oil on the ground to make the forces slip. Around midday, small groups of youths were seen darting in and out of nearby alleyways in Jerusalem's Old City, throwing stones and bottles at police, who responded with more stun grenades. Many protesters masked their faces with white T-shirts or black-and-white checkered keffiyeh headdresses.
A total of 25 protesters suffered light to moderate injuries after being struck by batons or inhaling gas, said Ameen Abu Ghazaleh, head of the Palestinian Red Crescent's ambulance service. In addition, an Australian journalist covering the clash was struck in the face by a rock and lightly wounded, Israeli police said.
Nine police officers were also lightly wounded and 18 protesters were detained, police said. The Palestinian president's adviser on Jerusalem affairs, and a leader from Israel's Islamic Movement were arrested for alleged incitement, police said.
The disputing claims to the hilltop compound in Jerusalem's Old City lie at the heart of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It is revered as the holiest site in Judaism, home to the biblical Temples.
It also is the third-holiest site in Islam, after the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, and believed to be the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. At the center of the compound is the famous golden cap of the Dome of the Rock.
The site has been under Israeli control since 1967, but is administered by a Muslim religious body known as the Waqf. The compound is opened for several hours a day to allow tourists and Jews to visit, though only Muslims are allowed to pray there.
The Palestinians seek to make east Jerusalem — including the holy compound — the capital of a future independent state, while Netanyahu says he will never share control of the holy city.
Israel's crackdown drew condemnations from throughout the Muslim world. The head of the 57-nation Islamic Conference warned that any provocative act at Al-Aqsa "would bear grave consequences," while the Arab League called on the U.N. to "stop the Israeli aggressions."
Egypt said it had instructed its ambassador in Israel to urge the government to refrain from actions with "negative repercussions" for the region.
The Islamic militant Hamas movement, which rules the Gaza Strip, called on Palestinians to rise up against Israel and urged Arab countries that have ties to Israel to sever them. "The real battle begins again," spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.