JERUSALEM, OCT. 26 -- An official commission investigating clashes on Oct. 8 between police and demonstrators on the Temple Mount today issued a report broadly backing the government's version of events, including its assertions that the violence was provoked by Palestinian leaders and that police gunfire that killed 20 Arabs was justified.
The 60-page report, which Palestinian spokesmen labeled a "whitewash," criticized some Israeli police commanders for not anticipating the clashes or deploying enough forces to head off any trouble. But it appeared to justify even those instances it documented of "indiscriminate" firing by police, while accusing Moslem religious leaders and Palestinian political activists of "criminal" incitement.
Government officials conceded tonight that the official investigation, which was commissioned by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and led by a former chief of the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, was unlikely to alleviate pressure on Israel over the incident in the U.N. Security Council. With U.S. support, the council has passed two resolutions condemning the killing of the Palestinians and deploring Israel's refusal to accept a U.N. investigative mission.
Shamir and Israeli diplomats have suggested that U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar accept the commission's report in lieu of an outside investigation. However, one senior official acknowledged today that "there is nothing so spectacular about this report, as some people expected."
The Temple Mount incident and its repercussions in the Security Council have prompted one of the most serious confrontations between Israel and the United States in recent years. On Wednesday, Shamir rejected a personal appeal by President Bush to allow a U.N. representative to visit Jerusalem, and the United States responded by voting against Israel in the Security Council for the second time in two weeks.
The Israeli commission, headed by Gen. Zvi Zamir and including a retired civil servant and a prominent lawyer, said it heard 124 witnesses, visited Arab hospitals and watched several videotapes of the clashes during its two-week probe. It also interviewed Palestinians under detention by police, although Moslem authorities refused to cooperate.
The panel, however, failed to cite substantiating evidence for any of its findings, which contradicted the results of other investigations by Palestinian organizations and an Israeli human rights group.
In providing a chronology of the events of Oct. 8 in Jerusalem's walled Old City, the commission relied almost exclusively on accounts by police. Its report does not mention the often contradictory accounts of Palestinian witnesses, nor the conclusions of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, which issued a report last week accusing police of recklessly firing bursts of automatic weapons fire at fleeing demonstrators.
The clashes erupted on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, when thousands of Jews were gathered at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site. The wall forms the western side of the Temple Mount, and the mount itself holds two mosques venerated by Moslems, Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock.
Responding to calls by clerics, up to 5,000 Arabs gathered on the 35-acre Temple Mount, known to Moslems as Haram Sharif. The demonstrations were called to stop a planned march on the site by a Jewish extremist group that advocates the destruction of the two mosques and the rebuilding of an ancient Jewish temple that once stood on the site.
The Palestinians eventually charged a 45-member police detachment on the mount, driving it temporarily out of the area, and threw stones at the plaza in front of the Western Wall. The commission said nine Jewish worshipers and 19 police were injured in the incident. It said 20 Palestinians were killed when police broke up the protests, although revised reports by Palestinian groups issued Thursday set the figure at 18.
In one chapter, the report says that police who eventually returned to the Temple Mount to disperse stone throwers "gathered in an unsupervised manner" and that "during the charge there was an indiscriminate use of live ammunition." However, it adds that the police's objective at the moment of the charge -- rescuing two officers mistakenly thought to be trapped by a crowd -- "justified a quick operation and the use of all means."
"The use of live ammunition on the Temple Mount under the prevailing conditions was justified by the commission," the report states. Citing "the opinion of a medical expert submitted to the commission," it disparages allegations by Arab witnesses and hospital doctors that some of those killed and wounded were shot in the back, although it does not completely discount the possibility.
The report charges that "the incident itself began when, suddenly, violent and threatening calls were sounded on the speakers" of the Al Aqsa mosque, including "Slaughter the Jews."
"Immediately afterward, enormous amounts of rocks, construction materials and metal objects were thrown at Israeli policemen who were present at the site. . . . This was a serious criminal offense committed by masses who were incited by preachers on loudspeakers, and this is what led to the tragic chain of events."
None of the several other accounts of how the incident began has connected the onset of the violence directly to calls over the loudspeakers of the Al Aqsa mosque or documented that calls of "Slaughter the Jews" were made. The commission did not say what evidence supported its version of events.
The report confirms allegations by Palestinian investigators that the driver of an Arab ambulance and a female nurse riding inside were struck by bullets while evacuating wounded from the Temple Mount. But it says that "it was clarified to the commission that the police did not see the ambulance," and the report does not criticize the shooting.
It also provides a new explanation for another widely reported incident, in which police fired tear gas into East Jerusalem's Mokassed hospital, where many of the wounded were taken. "While running, an officer fell down and because of that a tear gas shell was fired from his gun," the report says. "During its flight, the tear gas shell penetrated the hospital," the summary adds, and "mistakenly" hit a patient.
Although it concludes that police at the scene acted correctly, the report criticizes two middle-level officials in the police force, Jerusalem commander Aryeh Bibi and southern district chief Rahavam Comfort, for failing to anticipate the clashes despite an abundance of indications that trouble was possible. It stops short of recommending any action against the commanders but suggests that police continue to investigate Palestinians for "criminal acts," such as incitement.
The report also recommends that a special force be established to maintain order on the Temple Mount and that the government create a committee to supervise the affairs of the Temple Mount.
Israel radio quoted government minister David Magen as saying tonight that a cabinet meeting on Sunday would consider the report and could take measures to tighten Israeli control over the Temple Mount, such as limiting the number of Moslems allowed onto the site for prayers and confiscating keys to its gates now controlled by Moslem authorities.