On the morning of September 28, 2000, a six-member Likud Knesset delegation led by the then-leader of the Israeli opposition, Ariel Sharon, paid a visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. From the moment the plans for the visit had been made public four days earlier, there was concern among Israeli security officials that the heavily media-covered visit might inflame some Palestinian nationalist sentiments because it would be viewed as a deliberately provocative symbol of Israeli control of all of Jerusalem, east and west.
These concerns prompted consultations on the matter between Israeli and Palestinian officials, culminating in a telephone conversation between Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and the head of the Palestinian Preventive Security Organization, Jibril Rajoub, in which Rajoub indicated, “If Mr. Sharon refrains from entering the Mosques on Temple Mount, there will not be any problem.” Only then did the Israeli police agree to permit the visit–along with a 1,500 member police escort, just in case.
A Match in a Tinderbox
Sharon’s visit was relatively brief, avoiding the mosques. It was completed by 8:30 a.m. and was followed by a vocal demonstration of about 1,000 Palestinians led by Israeli Arab Knesset members who hurled stones at Israeli policemen. But this too was relatively brief and not unprecedented in the context of previous Palestinian-Israeli clashes in that religiously and emotionally charged area of Jerusalem. By the afternoon, despite sporadic flare-ups of further clashes between police and demonstrators, Israeli security officials concluded that the matter was behind them.
They turned out to be seriously wrong.
Within hours, the Voice of Palestine was broadcasting denunciations. Sharon was said to have conducted “a serious step against Muslim holy places.” Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority chairman, called upon the entire Arab and Islamic world to “move immediately to stop these aggressions and Israeli practices against holy Jerusalem.” Repeated broadcasts throughout the evening and night described the visit as a deliberate defilement of the mosques.
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