The Spark: Sharon or the Muslim Firebrands
The growing conflict started last Thursday morning, when Sharon ascended the Temple Mount on the eve of the Jewish New Year holiday to exercise his right to visit Judaism's holiest site like anyone else. Sharon announced his plans days earlier, giving Palestinian and Israeli Arab leaders plenty of time to gather a hostile welcoming committee. Just after Sharon left the compound, a demonstration ensued, with Israeli security taking the brunt of the punishment, as 25 policemen and only four Muslim rioters were injured. Some isolated rock throwing incidents were reported elsewhere in east Jerusalem and outside Ramallah later Thursday.
The next morning, however, over 20,000 Muslim radicals - many youths ferried in from Islamic hotbeds in PA areas and the Galilee - converged at the Al Aqsa mosque for Friday prayers. The Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ibrahim Ekrima, referred to Sharon as the "Jewish butcher of Muslims," who was "challenging more than one billion Muslims all over the world." The acid-tongued Mufti appealed for a pan-Islamic ruler to declare a Jihad "to eradicate the Jews from Palestine."
Emerging from the mosque, the Muslim throng saw about 30 Israeli troops waiting passively behind plexi-glass shields in the recesses of the nearby Mugrabi gate, leading down to the Western Wall plaza. Hundreds of Arab youths began throwing rocks and other projectiles at the Israeli forces, and at Jewish worshippers praying at the Wall below. In a frank admission, one Waqf official later described them as "those who came here to cause trouble and not pray."
Israeli army and police units held back at first, but eventually responded with tear gas, rubber-coated pellets and finally live ammunition, in a bid to break up the riot. Four Arabs were killed and dozens were injured in the mayhem, setting off a cycle of violence which may not have yet peaked.
The US State Department this weekend assessed that "Sharon's visit at the site caused these tensions," while the French government issued a statement condemning his visit as a "deliberate provocation carried out... for reasons of internal politics, at the most sensitive moment in the peace talks."
But acting Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami countered that the violence was "a direct result of massive and dangerous attacks perpetrated by a Muslim gathering on the Mount seeking to violently confront Jewish worshipers praying at the Western Wall on the eve of the Jewish New Year."
Barak also today said Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount was not the reason for the violence - which he attributed to "tremendous simmering tensions under the surface" - but "it was part of the picture."
Sharon himself rejected the accusations against him, saying that "the disturbances are part of an overall, premeditated campaign which began 10 days ago near Netzarim and spread from there to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria... I am sorry about the injured on both sides. Nonetheless, it is unacceptable that every time the Palestinian demands are not met, they embark on violence," Sharon added.
Israeli analysts noted that not only Palestinian extremists, but even militants in the Islamic Movement in Israel had been looking for any excuse to initiative hostilities over Al Aqsa. At a huge rally in Umm el-Fahm on September 15, one sheikh warned, "We won't shed tears if damage is done to the Al Aqsa Mosque, we will spill blood."
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.