JERUSALEM, OCT. 13 -- The blue-lettered handbills were distributed around Jersualem a week ago: "You are hereby invited . . . in a massive pilgrimage to the Temple Mount during the holiday of Sukkot, and to the march of the flags of Israel," they read. "These historic national events will take place with the knowledge of the security forces and under their protection."

Once again, the "Movement of the Faithful to the Temple Mount and the Land of Israel" had seized the occasion of a major Jewish holiday to draw attention to one of the most explosive ideas in this city of extremes: that the two mosques on the Old City's Temple Mount, or Haram Sharif, venerated by Moslems should be demolished to make way for the reconstruction of the ancient Jewish temple that once stood on the site and remains at the center of Jewish memory.

For years, the Temple Mount Faithful and their leader, Gershon Salomon, had been organizing such marches, and Jerusalem's Islamic leaders had been staging counter-demonstrations. The result typically had been a scene of the tense theater well known to the Moslems, Jews and Christians who live uneasily together in the ancient walled Old City: a crowd of Moslem youths and a force of Israeli riot police would exchange taunts and the occasional stone or burst of tear gas on the Temple Mount, while Salomon and his followers retreated from the site's heavy wooden gates.

This year, however, the scripted standoff precipitated a catastrophe. For more than an hour late Monday morning, Jerusalem's most revered patch of earth became a battleground in which Israeli police and Palestinian youths locked in the fiercest and most bloody single clash in the 23 years of Israeli rule in Jerusalem. At least 19 Arabs were killed and 140 were injured; about 10 Israeli police and another 20 civilians and tourists at the nearby Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, were hurt.

Six days later, the central question still lingers: Why did it happen? Why did the tactics of the Temple Mount Faithful, after so many false alarms, begin a chain of events that produced a bloodbath this October? Why did Palestinians charge police and throw stones at the Western Wall, when Salomon's group was still far from the area? And why did police, who have controlled many such demonstrations in the past without incident, fire round after round of live ammunition into this crowd?

Even before the clouds of tear gas cleared from the 35-acre Temple Mount, the process of mythologizing the latest Israeli-Palestinian tragedy had begun. At one end of the site Monday afternoon, the 80-year-old mufti of Jerusalem, Sheik Saad Dine Alami, sat sobbing in a chair in front of the 1,200-year-old al-Aqsa mosque and dramatically extended his hand to Western reporters to reveal a palmful of cartridge cases. At the other end, Israeli national Police Chief Yaacov Terner was giving an interview by portable telephone to Israel radio and describing the burnt-out police post in front of him.

Since then, the stories of the two sides have crystallized: Israelis say Palestinian nationalist and religious leaders planned and orchestrated a massive attack on Israeli police and Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall, hoping to draw world attention from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's annexation of Kuwait to Israel's continuing occupation of East Jerusalem, the adjacent West Bank and the Gaza Strip; Palestinians say Israeli police perpetrated a massacre on a crowd that had gathered peacefully to resist an attempt by Jewish extremists to desecrate a site considered the third holiest in the world by Moslems.

Neither version is accurate. To some extent, the truth of the incident already has been obscured by the passions that make many Arabs and Jews in the Holy City witnesses for only their own side. Still, six days after the riots, dozens of interviews with Arab and Israeli witnesses, police commanders and Palestinian investigators make possible a reconstruction of events that sheds light on the lingering questions and contradicts some of the claims of both sides.

In particular, a preponderance of the testimony and evidence now available shows that:The Palestinian crowd that gathered on the Temple Mount Monday morning was there to stop what its leaders believed would be a march on the site by the Temple Mount Faithful. Similar crowds had gathered to stop similar demonstrations many times in the past -- including the three previous Sukkot holidays -- and there is no evidence that the gathering was directly related to the Persian Gulf crisis or "ordered" by Iraq or its Palestinian allies. Once the violence began, Palestinian youths attacked police with a ferocity and tenacity unprecedented in Jerusalem during the nearly three years of the intifada, the Arab rebellion in the occupied territories. Arab sources say the fervor of the youth can be connected to what had been a concerted campaign by Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem in recent weeks to step up the level of attacks, especially on police. The Israeli police detachment deployed on the Temple Mount was considerably smaller than that used to control the area during previous marches by the Temple Mount Faithful, and police commanders outside the mount felt panicked by reports suggesting that several officers were isolated against attacking mobs. Stone-throwing by Palestinians at Jewish worshipers gathered at the nearby Western Wall began after tear gas had been fired and clashes had already begun on the Temple Mount directly overhead, and the heaviest stone-throwing at the wall occurred after most Israeli police had been temporarily driven out of the area. This contradicts both the Israeli account that the incident began with stone-throwing at the wall, and Palestinian versions that it occurred only as a byproduct of clashes between demonstrators and police.

"We heard the tear gas being fired," explained police Chief Superintendent Shar Ayalon, who commands all police patrols in Jerusalem, "and it wasn't long after that before the first stones came over the Western Wall," forcing the remaining worshipers to flee and injuring several. Authorities on both sides took concrete steps to defuse the standoff before the clashes erupted. But the measures were too weak and too late.

Both police commanders and Palestinian investigators probing Monday's events say they have not determined exactly what triggered the outbreak of violence. Both sides can agree only that Moslem youths came pouring out of the al-Aqsa mosque toward Israeli riot police stationed along the southwestern edge of the Temple Mount, drawing a volley of tear gas and rubber bullets.

Still, the available evidence suggests that what happened was a kind of spontaneous explosion between a crowd impassioned with religious and national feeling and a police force that felt overwhelmed. No one intended violence, or shooting, on such a scale, but as the conflict broke out, both sides lost control.

Meanwhile, in the valley of the Silwan neighborhood, nearly a mile away, the Temple Mount Faithful were praying undisturbed at the Shiloah pool, another favorite site. "It was very, very quiet," said Salomon. "We didn't hear a thing."

The Plans

That Monday morning, Salomon had arranged to meet his followers at 9 a.m. in the plaza in front of the Western Wall. The wall, Judaism's holiest site, is all that remains of the Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., and is actually a retaining wall holding up the western side of the Temple Mount.

Salomon, a white-haired, 53-year-old Jerusalem native who walks with a heavy limp from a war wound, said in an interview that he had planned an itinerary for the morning based on a prior agreement with police. The previous week, Salomon had lost an appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court, which backed the refusal of the police to allow him to carry a huge "cornerstone" for a new Jewish temple up to the Temple Mount; to build a succah or tabernacle, a festive Jewish holiday structure of wood and palms, or even to pray in the area.

However, Salomon had won police agreement to march onto the Temple Mount during the morning hours, as he had several times in the past. He planned to take his followers to the Shiloah pool in Silwan for a "water-pouring ceremony," then to march back through the Old City's Dung Gate and up the long, spiraling ramp to the Moghrabi, or Morocco Gate, to the Temple Mount. Arriving before a police-imposed deadline of 11 a.m., he planned to march seven times around the Temple Mount with his Israeli flags, in an effort, as his leaflet put it, "to give a Jewish national Zionist answer to ourselves, to our enemies, first and foremost Saddam Hussein and to {Yasser} Arafat, his squire, and to the whole world."

As usual, Salomon's plans had been closely, even obsessively, monitored by the leaders of the Islamic Higher Council, or Waqf, which under a long-standing arrangement with Israel controls and polices the Temple Mount under the direction of the mufti. Although Salomon had never attracted more than a few score supporters, the mufti and other al-Aqsa sheiks perceived him as a dangerous force capable of violating the sanctity of al-Aqsa and the nearby Dome of the Rock, which houses the stone from which the prophet Muhammad is believed by Moslems to have ascended to heaven for a conversation with Allah.

Each time in recent years that Salomon announced a demonstration, the mufti had countered by calling on Moslems to come to the Temple Mount to defend the two mosques. For at least the previous three years, the Waqf's mobilization had been particularly energetic on Sukkot, because it was then that Salomon had usually chosen to launch new gambits, such as the attempt to lay the "foundation stone."

For both Palestinian leaders and the youth in the street, this year's appeal by the sheiks, delivered at Friday prayers last week, fell on particularly fertile ground. Leaders of the two major political organizations in East Jerusalem, the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, had been struggling to overcome a conflict that had raged between the two groups in the West Bank during the summer, and to mobilize a new upsurge of the intifada in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

For the last month, Jerusalem had been a hot point in a relatively moribund Arab uprising. Almost every day, in the neighborhoods of Silwan, Wadi Joz and Jabil Mukaber and in the refugee camp of Shuafat, groups of youths had gathered to march, stone cars and battle police.

When the neighborhood activists of Hamas and Fatah heard the sheiks' call, they mobilized their followers to gather on the Temple Mount. "They didn't plan anything, but they intended to be ready in case Salomon came," said Khaled Abu Toameh, a respected Israeli Arab journalist, who said he later recognized a number of leading neighborhood activists while touring the hospitals where wounded were taken. "They were searching for a target, and they found it."

The Massing of Crowds

The Palestinian crowd began to mass at around 8 a.m., just as thousands of Jewish worshipers were assembling in the plaza below, in front of the Western Wall. The Jews were there for daily observances of the eight-day Sukkot holiday, as well as for the "Blessing of the Priests," an annual ceremony held for Jews whose names indicate priestly descent. Thousands of Israelis and tourists were in the plaza; Israel radio later said as many as 20,000 were present.

Between 8 and 10 a.m., police commanders in the Old City made two crucial decisions. First, judging that the crowd on the Temple Mount was liable to react violently, they decided that Salomon's permission to march on to the Temple Mount would be revoked, and informed Waqf security officers that he would not be allowed past the Moghrabi gate. Waqf officials confirmed that the message was passed, although they say they had no reason to believe the assurance.

At the same time, police became concerned because they noticed that Waqf security personnel had withdrawn from the area between the Moghrabi and Chain gates at the western edge of the mount, overlooking the Western Wall. As a result, police decided to reinforce the 40 patrolmen who normally sit at the mount's eight gates and in the tiny Ottoman police station at its northern end. They dispatched a 45-member contingent of the Border Police, a paramilitary force that, because of Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem, does the job of riot control in the city that is carried out by the army in the rest of the occupied territories.

The Border Police detachment stretched out between the Moghrabi and Chain gates, overlooking the Western Wall, and occupied the regimental command post that it keeps in another old Ottoman building between them known as the Mahkameh, or courthouse. As usual, the force was equipped with tear-gas grenades and launchers, and with Israeli-made Galil assault rifles with clips of rubber and plastic bullets, as well as live ammunition.

The Border Police differ from Israel's citizen army in that a disproportionate percentage of its members are drawn from Israel's community of Druze, an Arab sect, or from low-income families. During the intifada, the force has been accused several times of brutality by human rights groups. The commander of its detachment on the Temple Mount this day was Shlomo Katabi, a 35-year-old chief superintendent with a degree in psychology and more than 10 years experience in the police, including service in an elite anti-terror unit.

What made the deployment unusual was its relatively small numbers: in the past, according to reports in Israeli newspapers, hundreds of Border Police had been put on the mount to control disturbances connected to the Temple Mount Faithful.

In this case, several sources suggested, police may have been lulled by the seeming routine of past Temple Mount Faithful protests, when crowds had gathered but were easily controlled. "We had people in reserve, but there was nothing to indicate that something was going to happen," said police chief superintendent Ayalon, who was at a command post at the nearby Dung Gate. "Salomon was not around, he was down in Silwan. So why should they suddenly attack us? We were astounded by it."

Around the Temple Mount mosques, Islamic authorities were making their own efforts to head off trouble. All during the early morning hours, sheiks had been broadcasting appeals through the loudspeakers of al-Aqsa mosque, which can be heard in much of the Old City, saying such things as "Come defend the mosques, the Jews are coming," according to witnesses. But as the Moslem crowd swelled to between 3,000 and 5,000 before 10 a.m., the sheiks made an attempt to impose order, according to Palestinian accounts.

Sheik Muhammad Hassan, a Waqf security official, said efforts were made to calm youths who were rushing around the Temple Mount in pursuit of various wild rumors. The sheiks segregated women and men, placing the women around the Dome of the Rock and the men in the yard in front of al-Aqsa, and began broadcasting a Koran lesson over the loudspeakers. Hassan also said that at about 10 a.m., he approached Katabi and Superintendent Tsion Ezrah, the commander of the regular uniformed police on the mount, and explained the precautions that were being taken, asking in return that police withdraw from some of their positions.

Hassan said Katabi responded to his appeal with threats, warning against any stone-throwing by youths. But Ayalon denied that any such exchange took place.

At about 10 a.m., Salomon and a few dozen of his Temple Mount Faithful marched noisily out of the Old City with their banners and flags, headed to the Shiloah pool in Silwan, about a mile away. At about 10:15 a.m., witnesses said, the main religious observance by Jews at the Western Wall ended, and much of the crowd departed, leaving only a relatively small number of worshipers on the plaza.

By most accounts, the trouble started between 10:40 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. Israeli police and most Palestinians agree on the following: a large crowd of Moslem youth poured out of al-Aqsa and the area in front of it toward the Border Police line beginning at the Moghrabi gate, and the police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. At about the same time, another large group of Palestinians charged the small Ottoman police station at the north end of the compound, where only two patrolmen were stationed. Ayalon said a third group of men moved east from al-Aqsa, toward the stretch of pavement on the mount sometimes called "Solomon's Stables," and began raining stones down on the jam of buses and cars on the road below, which were transporting Jewish worshipers from the morning service.

Why did the youth charge at that moment? Ayalon professes not to know, although he is convinced that the attack was carefully planned in advance. Palestinian investigators, including the al-Haq legal advocacy group based in Ramallah, also say they are not sure, although they say the first sign of disturbance came when women around the Dome of the Rock suddenly began shouting, "God is great" and "Here come the Jews."

Al-Haq, which dispatched a 14-member team to investigate the riots this week, claims that the women suddenly were tear-gassed by the police. They say Palestinian men then rushed toward the Moghrabi gate because they believed Salomon's group was on the point of entering. Similar accounts were given independently by a number of Palestinians interviewed on the site after the attack, and in the days afterward, although not all witnesses said the police fired tear gas.

What is clear is that once the violence began, it quickly turned ferocious. Al-Haq and a number of Palestinian witnesses said the beleaguered Border Police almost immediately opened fire with live ammunition, including bursts of automatic fire from their Galils. Ayalon, however, said none of the police involved had yet admitted to using live ammunition in the first minutes of the riot, and that an investigative commission would have to determine the truth.

At the northern end of the compound, journalist Abu Toameh, who by coincidence had just passed through the Lion's gate and onto the Temple Mount as part of a funeral procession, witnessed the attack on the police station. He said he saw the two patrol officers fire round after round of live ammunition at 400 to 500 youths assaulting them, without effect. "They would stop a wave, but then another wave would come," he said. "It was incredible -- I saw 30 to 40 people fall, but still they kept coming. Finally the police ran out of ammunition, and they fled." The Palestinians then looted and burned the police post.

Searching for Answers

Why did the Palestinians attack with such passion? Abu Toameh, who for several years has covered Jerusalem and the West Bank for a variety of Israeli media, says the demonstrators were driven by a well of pent-up nationalist and religious emotion. "For the last month, tension has been building in the city," he said. "The activists had been trying to step up the intifada. Then, people were upset because the government had just announced a new {Jewish} neighborhood in East Jerusalem. It seemed like this time was different, that this was a right-wing government that would let Salomon have his way.

"Then there was the gulf crisis," Abu Toameh said. "For two months the East Jerusalem press," which has been sympathetic to Iraq, "was printing stories about the desecration of the Moslem holy places, about how American soldiers in Saudi Arabia were walking naked around Mecca and throwing beer cans on the prophet's tomb. It sounds funny, but these reports were believed by many people, and so there was even greater passion than usual about defending the holy places here."

Ayalon, who was at the Dung Gate, said his radio crackled with the frantic shouts of the officers at the Ottoman police station, as well as the reports of the Border Police and of traffic police on the street outside, who were dodging the stones suddenly raining down on the stalled buses. Ayalon said he ran from the Dung Gate through the entrance to the Western Wall plaza, and up the ramp to the Moghrabi Gate. By that time, "in two minutes," he said, the Palestinians had already driven the Border Police out of the gate and barricaded it behind them.

Ayalon's account suggests that all of the Border Police were driven out of the Moghrabi or Chain gates in the first minutes of fighting, leaving the Palestinians free to stone the Western Wall at will. Films broadcast on Israeli television showed dozens of stones soaring over the wall, mostly to an empty plaza. Ayalon said a film provided to police by tourists late this week showed Arab youths atop the roof of the Islamic museum, south of the Moghrabi gate, hurling big rocks down on the plaza.

Palestinian accounts, however, say at least a few Border Police remained inside the compound, firing heavily from inside their fortified post in the Mahkameh and battling their way northward, apparently in an effort to relieve the beleaguered police station. Thick clouds of tear gas swirled through the site as crowds ran from the police, occasionally stopping to throw stones. Witnesses and hospital doctors said a number of demonstrators were shot from behind as they ran. On the plaza in front of the Moghrabi gate, young men dipped their hands in blood and pressed them against the stone of a prayer niche.

Outside the Moghrabi gate, the police struggled to break through the Palestinian barricade. According to Ayalon, "There was panic about two places -- the police station and the Western Wall. In another situation, we might have waited for the crowds to calm before going back in. But we were afraid that our officers at the police station were being lynched by the crowd."

When the police finally broke in, the tear-gas fumes were so heavy that Ayalon said he fainted twice trying to move in from the gate. At one point, he said, he picked up a gas mask that had been discarded by another officer and put it on, only to discover that the eyepieces had been smashed by stones.

As police rushed through the gate and forced back the demonstrators, the sheiks of al-Aqsa broadcast appeals over their loudspeakers. Some of the appeals, according to al-Haq, called on the Moslem youth to move inside the mosques and to avoid the police. Others addressed the police, saying, "Enough shooting, stop the shooting." One Arab witness said the sheiks also appealed for Moslems to "defend al-Aqsa" and shouted, "God is great" during the riots.

Order was finally restored at about 11:30 a.m., Palestinians said. But it was not until 5 p.m. that Arab ambulances, some of them streaked with blood, managed to evacuate all of the dead and wounded from inside the mosques. Police counted 19 dead, while Palestinians say 21 died, including a 70-year-old woman. Al-Haq said she died of a heart attack after witnessing the bloodshed.

VIOLENCE AT THE TEMPLE MOUNT

A crowd of several thousand Palestinians that gathered on the Temple Mount last Monday morning was there to stop what its leaders believed would be a march on the site by a Jewish group called the Temple Mount Faithful. Similar crowds had gathered to stop similar demonstrations many times in the past -- including the three previous Sukkot holidays. There is no evidence that the gathering was "ordered" by Iraq.

Stone throwing by Palestinians at Jewish worshippers gathered at the nearby Western wall began after tear gas had been fired by Israeli police and clashes had already begun on the Temple Mount directly overhead, according to a senior Israeli police officer. The heaviest stone-throwing at the Wall occurred after most Israeli police had been temporarily driven out of the area.

Once the violence began, Palestinian youths attacked police with a ferocity and persistence unprecedented in Jersualem during the nearly three years of the initifada. Arab sources say the fervor of the youth can be connected to what had been a concerted campaign by Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem in recent weeks to step up the level of attacks, especially on police.

The Israeli police detachment deployed on the Temple Mount was considerably smaller than detachments for previous marches by the Temple Mount Faithful. Police commanders outside the area felt panicked by reports that several officers were isolated against attacking mobs.