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Israelis dispersed worshippers on temple mount { January 2007 }

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Israel Police Disperse Muslim Worshippers After Jerusalem Riots
By David Rosenberg

Feb. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Israeli police dispersed Muslim worshippers on the Temple Mount of Jerusalem's Old City after rioting broke out in protest at Israel's excavations near the site, which is sacred to Muslims and Jews.

The disturbances began shortly after Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque, which is located on the compound, known as the Haram al-Sharif to Muslims, Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said by telephone. Police responded to stone-throwing by about 150 people with tear gas and stun grenades, he said.

``The police are now in full control of the situation and are carrying out a dialogue in order for the rest of those inside the mosque to leave,'' said Rosenfeld, speaking from the compound. Fifteen police officers were injured and 17 people were arrested, he added.

Israel began excavations this week to erect supporting columns for a ramp leading up to the compound that will replace a temporary wooden structure erected after an earthen ramp collapsed. Muslim leaders from Egypt to Iran have denounced the project and accuse Israel of damaging the holy site, which Israeli officials deny.

Anticipating disturbances, Israel banned Palestinians under the age of 45 from the area as of Feb. 6 and deployed about 2,000 police in and around the Old City, Rosenfeld said. He said police beefed up their forces to about 2,500 today in advance of Friday prayers, the main one of the week.

Police are investigating the possibility that the protesters hid in the compound over the last few days to circumvent the ban, the Haaretz daily reported, without saying where it got the information.

Conflict Flashpoint

The Temple Mount has been a flashpoint in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian uprising erupted after a September 2000 visit to the site by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then Israel's parliamentary opposition leader, and became known as the ``al-Aqsa Intifada.''

Jews regard the 35-acre (14 hectare) area as sacred because it was the site of the first and second temples, and conduct prayers at a site adjacent to it, known as the Western Wall. Muslims believe that the prophet Muhammad took the journey in a single night from Mecca to the site and ascended from there to heaven.

Israel seized Jerusalem's Old City from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War. While it subsequently annexed the Old City and other parts of east Jerusalem, it gave Muslim authorities control over the compound. Palestinians claim the eastern half of the city as the capital of the state they want to establish in the future.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said yesterday that the excavation work would do no damage, saying extremists are trying to exploit tensions surrounding the site.

`Irresponsible Elements'

``There are irresponsible elements, who know full well that no harm is being caused here to any holy site, who are exploiting Israeli democracy to fan religious feelings for political gain,'' Livni said in an e-mailed statement.

The Grand Imam of Egypt-based al-Azhar, the top religious institution of Sunni Islam, urged Muslims to fight to defend the al-Aqsa mosque against Israel, the state-run Egyptian newspaper al-Gomhuria reported yesterday.

``When Muslims' souls, dignity, homeland and sacred sites are being attacked, they are obliged to fight back,'' the newspaper cited al-Azhar's Imam, Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, as saying.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the work as a Zionist insult to the mosque, the state-run Iranian Students News Agency reported Feb. 7.

The earthen ramp, which leads to the compound's Mughrabi Gate, collapsed three years ago, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is conducting the work.

Last Updated: February 9, 2007 07:54 EST

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