Palestinian Violence Picks Up On 'Day of Rage'
Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Violence broke out in Jerusalem's Old City and at flashpoints throughout the disputed West Bank and Gaza Strip Friday following Muslim prayers on the Temple Mount, leaving at least five more Palestinians dead.
On high alert for a "Day of Rage" called by Palestinian activists, Israeli security forces put the Palestinian Authority to the test on the Temple Mount by withdrawing from the site, leaving it in PA hands and not carrying out the usual security checks as worshippers entered the compound.
About 20,000 Muslims arrived for noon prayers, fewer than expected. PA forces and religious officials were in charge of maintaining calm during the prayers, but trouble soon erupted.
Jews praying at the Western Wall below the Mount came under a hail of stones hurled from above, and were hurried out of the area. They were later able to return.
As the Muslims left the Temple Mount, hundreds of Palestinians began throwing rocks and objects at Israeli policemen in the Old City, who responded by firing rubber bullets and tear gas.
At one point the rioters tried to enter a police station and set it on fire. Police commissioner Yehuda Wilk said the police had anticipated the move, and withdrawn policemen from the station to prevent injuries.
At least five Palestinian deaths were reported by evening - three in the West Bank, one in Gaza, and one in the Old City.
Israel imposed a closure on the West Bank and Gaza, preventing Palestinians from entering Israel. The decision followed calls by the militant group Hamas for a "Day of Rage" to protest the more than 65 Palestinians killed in a week of rioting and clashes with Israeli troops.
The closure will remain in effect until Monday evening, the end of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
The renewed violence comes one day after Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PA Chairman Yasser Arafat failed to sign a ceasefire agreement during an emergency meeting in Paris with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Despite the absence of an agreement, Arafat pledged to put a stop to the fighting.
Barak's decision to cede Temple Mount security to the PA was slammed by critics, who said it had far-reaching political ramifications. One radio analyst said the Palestinians had won what they wanted; the Temple Mount is in their hands, the analyst said.
The Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the PA in 1993 forbade any official PA activity in Jerusalem. Negotiators shelved the question of the future status of the contested city until the end of an interim period. The issue is now on the table and proving to be the hardest barrier to overcome.
Israeli-PA negotiations at Camp David, MD, in July, broke down over the issue of Jerusalem, and specifically sovereignty on the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif.
The PA and most of the international community has blamed Israel for the past week's violence, attributing it to a visit to the Temple Mount last Thursday of Israeli opposition politicians led by Likud leader Ariel Sharon.
Israel insists the violence was orchestrated by Tanzim, a military wing established by Arafat's Fatah faction of the PLO, planned beforehand, and that the visit was merely used as a pretext to unleash it.
Despite the crisis, Barak pledged in a televised press conference Thursday evening to "leave no stone unturned" in the pursuit of peace.
"The significance of a possible dead end in the process is so far-reaching for all citizens of the state, for their security and their life-style, that we will not miss any chance anywhere in the world to see if it is possible to determine whether we can reach understandings and reduce the violence," he said.
Referring to Arafat, the prime minister said Israel would know within a few weeks whether or not it had a partner in the peace process.
Barak sent a letter to 100 world leaders Thursday, urging them to persuade Arafat to put an end to the violence and "make the necessary decisions for changing the face of the Middle East."
According to a statement from his office, the letter said that while Israel was displaying "restraint" while "taking calculated risks", Barak was "determined to take all of the steps necessary for preserving security and peace for the nation's citizens and its soldiers."
European and Arab nations have accused Israel of excessive use of force in dealing with Palestinian rioters, who in many cases have been backed up by PA policemen armed with automatic weapons.