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Clash in Jerusalem heightens tension


JERUSALEM -- Angry clashes at the Old City shrine revered by Muslims and Jews and the death of an Israeli soldier combined yesterday to heighten regional tensions at a sensitive moment in the peace process.

A visit by Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Haram al Sharif, touched off a riot by hundreds of rock- and bottle-throwing Palestinian youths. Helmeted Israeli police responded with clubs and rubber bullets. More than 20 police officers and a number of Palestinians were hurt.

Separately, an Israeli soldier died of injuries received from a roadside bomb explosion the night before near a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip.

The two incidents underscored the explosive combination of politics, religion, nationalism and terror that keep this region a flash point. They occurred as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were in Washington in a late attempt to rescue the peace process.

The Temple Mount is the biggest barrier to a peace agreement. Held by Jews to be the site of the first and second temples, it is also the third-holiest shrine in Islam, containing the centuries-old Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has rejected Palestinian and Muslim claims to sovereignty over the plateau, but his government is willing to allow control by the United Nations Security Council.

The visit by Sharon, who opposes concessions in Jerusalem, marked an attempt both to undermine Barak's flexibility and reassert Israel's claim. It also highlighted his leadership of the Israeli right against a possible challenge by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads him in the polls.

Sharon, a former general and Cabinet minister, is hated in the Arab world for running Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, where he was found to bear indirect responsibility for a massacre at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps.

News of his plan brought public calls from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction and other organizations for a strong show of resistance. Hundreds of Palestinian teen-agers were joined by leading Palestinian figures, including Faisal Husseini, the Palestinian minister for Jerusalem, and Arab-Israeli members of parliament.

Many Palestinians called the visit provocative; others called it a desecration. Hundreds of police, perhaps 1,000, were on hand to protect Sharon and other Likud members, who were greeted when they arrived by cries of "Alahu al akbar," or "God is great."

"Naturally, I am sorry about those who were hurt. I wish them a speedy recovery," Sharon said. "But it is the right of a Jew in Israel to visit the Temple Mount, and it is inconceivable that there be a situation in which a Jew is not allowed to visit the Temple Mount. This is the most sacred place to the Jewish people."

Police Commissioner Yehuda Wilk said: "This visit had to take place to demonstrate that the Temple Mount is open to all."

Ordinarily, Israelis mingle with tourists visiting the site, though only Muslims are allowed to pray there. Deeply religious Jews refrain from going there because of rabbinical rulings that the Temple Mount is too holy for Jews to enter without ritual purification.

Sporadic clashes broke out elsewhere in Arab East Jerusalem and near the West Bank town of Ramallah before calm was restored by midafternoon.

The Arab League said Sharon's visit could destroy the peace process, and Arafat said Muslim nations should unite to protect the Haram.

Husseini said the visit proved that Israel holds the plateau only by force.

Sharon "thought that this place belongs to the Israelis, but the way he entered, with thousands of police protecting him, was clear proof to all the world that the Israelis have no sovereignty here," he said.

Sharon also drew criticism from the Israeli left.

"Sharon is a serial arsonist," said Dalia Itzik, a Labor Party minister in Barak's government. "He who set fire from Lebanon ... is now trying to set a fire in the most sensitive place we've got."

Wednesday's roadside bombing in Gaza was the biggest attack on Israeli soldiers there in two years. Security sources blamed Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that calls for ending the Israeli occupation by force.

The tactic was reminiscent of the ambushes carried out by the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah in its successful drive to expel Israeli forces from Lebanon.

The soldiers were part of a convoy protecting Jews who belong to the Netzarim settlement, a frequent target.

Barak demanded that the Palestinian Authority increase its efforts to curb terrorism, and Israeli officials contemplated some form of retaliation, such as curbs on transportation to and from the Gaza Strip.

A second, similar attack occurred yesterday, but the bomb went off several yards from the soldiers' vehicle and no one was injured.

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