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October 26, 2009

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Jerusalem erupts following protest

ISRAELI forces stormed Jerusalem's holiest shrine yesterday, firing stun grenades to disperse hundreds of stone-throwing Palestinian protesters in a fresh eruption of violence at the most volatile spot in the country.

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.

After several rounds of clashes, dozens of protesters were still holed up inside the mosque midafternoon, occasionally opening shuttered doors to throw objects at police. The Israeli forces did not enter the building and police said they had no plans to do so. 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 who 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.

The 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 there has been no evidence to support the Palestinian claims.

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 yesterday 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 black-and-white checkered keffiyeh headdresses.

Three police officers were lightly wounded and 15 protesters were detained.


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