JERUSALEM (Aug. 22)
A mysterious fire which severely damaged the El Aksa mosque in Old Jerusalem, the second holiest shrine of Islam this morning, threatened to bring about the most serious confrontation between Israelis and local Arabs since Israel captured East Jerusalem in the June, 1967 war.
Premier Golda Meir visited the mosque today, accompanied by Deputy Premier Yigal Allon and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and talked with the heads of the Waqf, the supreme Moslem religious body in Jerusalem. But the Moslem leadership here has already accused Israeli authorities of laxity in fighting the fire and announced that it will not cooperate with a special investigating committee which Mrs. Meir set up today to determine the cause of the blaze.
Sheikh Hilmi Moustahib, the Cadi, or chief Moslem religious authority in Jerusalem, called on all Arabs in Jerusalem and the Israel-occupied territories to stage a sit-in strike on Saturday. He said they should shut themselves in their homes for the entire day. Sheikh Moustahib called a press conference and announced that a committee of experts established by the local Moslem leadership has already determined that the fire, which all but destroyed the south wing of the mosque, was “maliciously set” by one or more persons.
He said the leadership would refuse to recognize the findings of the Israeli inquiry committee but would agree to an international board of inquiry to include representatives of the Arab states. He demanded that the keys to the Temple Mount area on which are located the El Aksa mosque, the Dome of the Rock (Mosque of Omar) and the Western (Wailing) Wall, be turned over to the Waqf and that all archaeological excavations in the area be terminated.
ARAB MOBS CUT WATER, ATTACK FIREMEN ATTEMPTING TO BRING BLAZE UNDER CONTROL
Arab Mobs Cut Water, Attack Firemen Attempting To Bring Blaze Under Control Mrs. Meir told reporters at the scene of the blaze that she would not deign to discuss charges by spokesmen for Arab governments and guerrilla organizations that the fire was deliberately set by Israelis. Radios in most Arab capitals today called on 500 million Moslems to rise in a holy war against Israel because “the Zionists burned the mosque.”
The fire, which was reported at 7:20 a.m. local time, raged for three-and-a-half hours before it was brought under control by the Jerusalem fire brigade which had to summon help from fire brigades in Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah. The Israeli firemen arrived on the scene eight minutes after the first alarm. But according to Fire Chief J. Lieberman, they were pelted with rocks and sticks and even assaulted bodily by mobs of infuriated Arabs who were already on the scene. According to reports, Arab agitators ranged through the Old City trying to incite anti-Israel demonstrations and urged shop keepers to go on strike.
Chief Lieberman said the fire could have been extinguished much sooner if it was not for the harassing mob. Israeli police and troops were called in to protect the firemen and at one point fired into the air to disperse the mobs. A fire hydrant near the mosque was destroyed and water had to be brought to the area in tank trucks. But Shiekh Moustahib disregarding the mob harassment, charged that the fire department acted too slowly. A curfew imposed on East Jerusalem this morning was lifted except for the immediate vicinity of the mosque. Tourists were kept away but persons with legitimate business in the area were allowed to pass.
URGENT CABINET SESSION HELD, MUNICIPALITY, GOVERNMENT PROMISE SPEEDY RESTORATION
Premier Meir called an urgent cabinet meeting this morning as soon as she learned of the fire. She said later that Israel could be proud of its record of protecting the holy sites of all faiths in Jerusalem.
Mayor Teddy Kollek, who was at the scene of the fire shortly after the first alarm was sounded, called it a “terrible tragedy” and promised that the municipality would do everything possible to repair the damage quickly. The Minister for Religious Affairs, Zerach Warhaftig, said his ministry would lend aid to rehabilitate valuables that were damaged or destroyed. The roof of the south wing collapsed, leaving only charred walls.
Eye-witnesses reported that many Arabs entered the burning structure to rescue valuables. They came out carrying precious rugs and other items and “cursing the Jews” the witnesses said.
The El Aksa mosque sits stop the Temple Mount near the Western Wall, about 100 yards from the Dome of the Rock where, according to Moslem tradition, the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. It was on that site that King Abdullah, of Jordan, grandfather of King Hussein, was assassinated by Arab terrorists in 1951. After the twin shrines of Mecca and Medina, devout Moslems regard the El Aksa mosque as their holiest site.