JERUSALEM, Feb. 9 (UPI) -- Clashes at one of the world's holiest sites between stone-throwing Muslim demonstrators and Israeli policemen in heavy riot gear Friday ended with 30 injuries and fears it could be a harbinger of something far worse.
Most of the fighting was on a plaza the Jews call the Temple Mount, their holiest site, and the Muslims al-Aqsa, their third holiest site.
The dispute was over excavations the Israelis launched along a ramp leading to the plaza's southwestern Moors' Gate. Part of that ramp collapsed following an earthquake and snowstorms in 2004. The Israelis built a wooden bridge nearby and sought to replace it with something sturdier.
They launched "salvage excavations," an archaeological procedure designed "to prevent and minimize damage which could be caused to ancient remains as a result of the construction," the Israel Antiquities Authority said. These excavations will not extend to the Temple Mount's wall, the authority's spokeswoman Osnat Gouez said.
The Waqf that manages the al-Aqsa compound protested the excavations and Muslims repeated charges that Israel was threatening their mosques.
"No one moves a stone here without a political consideration," argued Arab Knesset Member Talab al-Sana. "The conspiracies regarding al-Aqsa have not ceased" and, "of course" Israel was digging under the mosques.
Some 9,000 Muslims prayed at al-Aqsa Friday. Fearing clashes, police restricted access to men who are at least 45 years old, women, and to Israeli Arabs. Younger Muslims gathered outside the Old City walls and prayed in the street.
Police brought some 3,000 men, some of whom gathered outside the Moors' Gate.
Jerusalem Police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said that the minute the prayers ended rioters stoned the gate. Hundreds of policemen burst into the compound hurling stun grenades and firing bullets he said were made of sponge. Palestinians said the Israelis fired tear gas but Ben-Ruby maintained the clouds of smoke were from the stun grenades.
Most of the rioters were grown-ups but there were youngsters who covered their faces with kefiyas (headdress).
One of the worshippers, Mahdi Abdul Hadi, said that the moment the prayers ended he heard "bombs and bullets and attacks."
Police locked the al-Aqsa mosque's doors for about two hours, keeping some 300 people inside. Ben-Ruby said it was because stones had been thrown from there.
Around 15 Muslims were injured, according to the Palestinian Maan news. Fifteen policemen were injured and 17 rioters were arrested, said Ben-Ruby.
The clashes ended when police struck a deal with the Waqf and al-Sana providing its men pull back and the Muslims leave.
The fact no one was killed might allow the situation to calm down but the site is a potential tinderbox.
In 1996 Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem's Mayor Ehud Olmert (who is now prime minister) opened a tunnel that exposes the bottom layer of the Temple Mount's ancient external wall. The Muslims protested and in ensuing clashes 69 Palestinians and 16 Israeli soldiers were killed.
In September 2000, opposition leader Ariel Sharon (who later became prime minister) visited the plaza. Sharon did not enter any mosque but his appearance sparked the intifada in which more than 4,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed.
Foreign correspondents were given a taste of the relations, last month, when they were there as guests of the Waqf. The Waqf did not coordinate the visit with the police and when the first reporters entered al-Aqsa Mosque a police officer turned up and sternly ordered them out. "We are in control here," the commanding officer said. Visitors may not enter mosques.
Moments later the senior Waqf official offered to lead reporters into the neighboring Dome of the Rock, in defiance of police orders.
Al-Sana alleged Israel wants to "change the Muslim and Christian character of the site and establish facts ... so that when there will be negotiations over a permanent (Israeli-Palestinian) settlement, there will be nothing to discuss because (new) facts have been created.
"The aim is to try and prove an historical Jewish link to the area and to try and blur the Islamic reality," he said.
The Jews feel the Muslims are doing the same to them. They complained the Waqf carelessly dug in the compound's southeastern section. The debris was, however, trucked to lots the Antiquities Authority controls and archaeologists are sifting through it, Gouez said.
Israeli officials considered the furor over the salvage excavations as another Muslim extremists' ploy to stir trouble.
"Despite the fact that what we are doing is totally transparent, that people can watch it, (and) we have shared the plans with all the relevant people...extremists for their own illogical reasons deliberately promote fantasies and you see stories that the Jews are tunneling under the Mount. It's ridiculous," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. An aide to Olmert said he wants to post cameras there and transmit a live feed, through the Internet, so that anyone can see the works.
The Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites in Israel, Shmuel Rabinowitz, noted that the Temple Mount is so holy that Jews are "strictly forbidden" from even stepping there.
The furor might nevertheless hamper Israel's attempts to strengthen cooperation with moderate, Sunni-Muslim regimes against Iran and other extremists such as Hezbollah. Israel hopes for cooperation with rulers in the Arabian Peninsula, it has peace with Egypt and Jordan. But it is no other than Jordan's King Abdullah II who criticized Israeli "attacks against our Islamic holy shrines."