JERUSALEM, Feb. 9 -- Violence erupted between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters after Muslim prayers on Friday as anger boiled over newly launched Israeli excavations near a site considered holy to both Muslims and Jews.
Police and soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets -- and possibly live ammunition as well -- at stone-throwing demonstrators, officials and witnesses said. About 30 Palestinians, and up to 15 Israeli police officers, were injured.
Israeli police had tripled their presence at the site -- known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as the Temple Mount -- after Muslim leaders condemned the construction work that began Tuesday and called for protests against it.
Critics say the work could harm Islam's third-holiest shrine, which includes both the al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques.
"I think they want to change the view of al-Aqsa mosque, so that when anybody looks at it from the outside, they will see only Jewish tradition," said Abed Owais, a 45-year-old Palestinian who sells scrap iron and was worshipping at the site when the clashes began.
Israeli officials deny those allegations, and say Muslim and Arab leaders are using the excavation -- and the project to repair a ramp and build a pedestrian bridge -- as a pretext to fuel world criticism of the Jewish state.
Owais said the al-Aqsa mosque, which can hold about 16,000 people, was full for the midday prayer service. Thousands more of the faithful gathered in the plaza outside.
"After we finished prayers, we shouted, 'God is great, God is great,' and then there was shooting and grenades," Owais said. "The police made the situation worse. Every time they tried to arrest someone, the people attacked to prevent it."
An Israeli police spokesman told the Associated Press that about 200 police officers streamed onto the hilltop compound in response to rock throwing and other provocations.
The compound inside the walled Old City of Jerusalem is believed to be the site of both the first and second biblical Jewish temples. It has been a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian violence in the past. When then-Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon led a delegation of Israeli lawmakers on a tour in 2000, riots began that evolved into the Palestinian uprising that continues today.
It was not immediately clear how Friday's clashes might affect an
In an attempt to prevent violence on Friday, Israel had banned West Bank Palestinians from entering the compound, along with worshipers from Jerusalem or Israel who are younger than 45. The restriction stoked resentment, and witnesses said many young men managed to get inside the site anyway.
Some sent cascades of rocks, bottles and garbage raining down onto Israeli soldiers and police from the apartments and offices that surround the disputed site. Each wave was followed by the sharp bangs of percussion stun grenades and bursts of gun fire. Israeli helicopters and surveillance balloons hovered overhead.
By late afternoon, only a few hundred Palestinians reportedly remained inside the compound. The injured had been carried out on stretchers to waiting ambulances. Israeli authorities locked the doors of the eight gates that lead to the Muslim shrine.
About 30 people injured by rubber bullets or tear gas were taken for treatment to al-Makasad Hospital, on the Mount of Olives, Dr. Nitham Turk said. Two others were wounded by live fire, Turk said.
An Israeli official said up to 15 police officers were also injured and were being treated at an Israeli hospital.