Mosque Construction Causes Widespread Protests

JERUSALEM, Feb. 8, 2007 — -- The pictures broadcast from Jerusalem today will no doubt enrage the Arab world.

Violence erupted right after Friday prayers. Israeli soldiers rushed onto the Temple Mount to disperse Palestinian worshippers, including some who threw bottles and stones, who had gathered to condemn the Israeli government's renovation project near the cherished Muslim holy site.

A doctor treating some of the injured, Dr. Khalil el-Baba, said officers fired rubber bullets at protesters, but police denied that.

Riot police with their helmet visors pulled down scuffled with worshippers, some of them middle-aged or elderly. Medics tended several injured people lying on the stone pavement.

Jewish worshippers were evacuated from the Western Wall plaza at the foot of the compound.

The situation grew especially volatile after some 150 protesters barricaded themselves inside the Al Aqsa mosque at the complex.

Old men, women and children scrambled back into the Al Aqsa Mosque while Israeli police fired stun grenades, exploding all around Islam's third holiest site.

About 30 police and protesters were injured, none seriously.

Any encroachment on a holy site is seen as a challenge to the fragile status quo in Jerusalem. It may be a one-time incursion, but suspicions and anger run so deep it will no doubt be one of those often-referred-to-moments in this tireless conflict.

Tension had been building. Arab leaders around the world had been calling for Muslims to protest today.

Many Arabs are furious the Israelis have started construction on a covered bridge that leads from the Wailing Wall Plaza to the Al Aqsa Mosque.

There is a small mound or hill under the bridge and it was an entrance into the Mosque at one time. Parts of the mound are being removed to make way for a new foundation for the bridge and many Muslims consider that sacred ground. Moderate Arabs are furious Israeli backhoes are taking away that hill without consulting any Islamic officials.

The Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ignored calls from his own government and from leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Jordan and many influential clerics to stop the construction.

There are concerns today's pictures look a little too familiar. In October 2000 Ariel Sharon went onto the Temple Mount, without consulting first with Muslim leaders.

As a result, the Second Infitada erupted and more than 5,000 people were killed.

Late today the situation in Jerusalem was stable, but this flare-up comes at a very delicate time.

U.S Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in the region on Feb. 19. She has promised to focus on this issue, saying she will be here once a month.

What will the U.S. position be on the new Palestinian government forged with the help of the Saudis? Does the clunky new wording of the government appease Israeli and U.S demands of recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and abiding by past PLO agreements?

If it does, will the two sides then finally be able to sit at the same table and talk about something meaningful?

The Associated Press contributed to this story.