JERUSALEM, Aug. 1 (JTA) — Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is making Jerusalem the focus of intensified terror in order to accentuate the religious dimension of the 10-month-old violence with Israel.
This was the accusation leveled at Arafat this week by top Israeli government analysts following a spate of attacks — shootings, bombings, stabbings and rioting — that have brought a new level of fear to Jerusalem residents.
The analysts believe Arafat’s immediate aim is to use the “religion card” in order to convene yet another Arab summit meeting.
Though several meetings of the Arab world’s leadership since the Palestinian uprising began failed to result in significant economic aid for the Palestinian Authority, Arafat hopes that focusing on the religious overtones of the conflict with Israel will convince the Arab League to provide tangible economic support, according to this view.
This week, violence continued at some of the highest levels since the Palestinians began their violent uprising last September.
Erupting across the West Bank and Gaza Strip and in Jerusalem, the violence threw into sharp relief just how thoroughly the U.S.-mediated cease- fire, which Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to just six weeks ago, has failed.
Some might argue — as the Palestinians contend — that the violence makes the need for international peacekeepers in the region more necessary than ever. In practice, however, it appeared less likely that such monitors would arrive anytime soon.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insisted that he would not discuss the composition of an observer force with Washington until a real cease-fire takes hold.
Arafat reiterated his demand — rejected by Israel — that such a force include other countries than just the United States.
If Arafat’s latest goal is to cast the conflict in a religious mold, then events Sunday dealt him something of a setback, as Israeli security officials did not fall into his trap.
After days of belligerent statements from Palestinian and Israeli Arab leaders had stoked their passions, Palestinians on the Temple Mount rained rocks down on Jewish worshipers marking Tisha B’Av on Sunday at the Western Wall.
Israeli police subsequently entered the Temple Mount compound, firing tear gas and stun grenades in skirmishes with dozens of Palestinians.
During the confrontations, 15 policemen and 20 Palestinians were hurt. The disturbances forced the evacuation of Jewish worshipers from the Western Wall Plaza.
Just the same, the police action did not lead to any Palestinian deaths — something Arafat could have milked for propaganda value in Arab capitals.
Observers of Sunday’s events could only recall the panicky deployment of Israeli police on the Temple Mount the morning of Sept. 29, 2000, the day after then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon paid a high-profile visit to the site.
Instead of using tear gas and stun grenades — which proved effective on Sunday — police last September responded to the Palestinians’ stones with bullets.
The figures are still in dispute, but as many as seven Palestinians died that day. It marked the beginning of the Palestinians’ now 10-month-old Al- Aksa Intifada, named for the mosque on the Temple Mount.
Israeli security officials said Palestinian officials and Israeli Arab legislators were responsible for inciting Sunday’s violence because they had overstated the threat posed by the Temple Mount Faithful, a small Jewish extremist group.
As they do every Tisha B’Av, when Jews around the world mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, the Faithful had sought permission to visit the Temple Mount for a symbolic cornerstone-laying ceremony for the Third Temple.
As in previous years, the High Court of Justice refused their request. Instead, the group was forced to hold the ceremony outside the Old City walls, and the rock was removed immediately after.
Despite that, Palestinian officials and Israeli Arab lawmakers warned in the days leading up to Tisha B’Av that the ceremony indeed would take place on the Temple Mount and was part of an Israeli attempt to assert control over the sacred complex. They called on Muslims to protect the mount with their bodies.
These warnings prompted angry crowds of Palestinians to throng into Jerusalem on Sunday, pelting Jews praying at the Western Wall Plaza below with rocks.
Given the number of people involved and the hot tempers, observers said it was a wonder that the clashes with Israeli police did not take a more deadly turn.
But that was only one in a series of incidents in recent days that have put Israelis on edge. Security forces went on high alert this week following a series of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, none of which caused serious injuries:
• On Monday, a small bomb exploded in a supermarket in Jerusalem.
• A day earlier, a car bomb exploded in the underground garage of an apartment building in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev.
• Last Friday, a bus driver found a bomb hidden in a watermelon on his bus, which was parked in a Jerusalem shopping mall.
On Monday, after the series of bombings, Israeli helicopters attacked the main Palestinian police headquarters in Gaza City. The army said it targeted a building “used to manufacture weapons and mortar bombs.”
Tensions were further fueled Monday after an explosion killed six activists from Arafat’s Fatah faction near the West Bank city of Jenin. Palestinian officials said Israel killed the six, who were wanted by Israeli officials for alleged involvement in terrorism.
Israeli security officials denied involvement, saying the blast may have been a “work accident” while the six were assembling a bomb.
On Tuesday, eight Palestinians — including at least two senior Hamas officials and two children — were killed in an Israeli helicopter attack on one of the terrorist group’s offices in the West Bank city of Nablus.
Israeli sources said the Hamas members were planning attacks in the Jerusalem area, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.
Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ spiritual leader, said Tuesday that Israel would pay a heavy price for the attack.
Hamas officials later said they were issuing orders calling on their followers to attack Israeli political leaders. According to Israeli media reports, the targets include Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and members of Israel’s Parliament.
On Wednesday, tens of thousands of Palestinians called for revenge against Israel during the funerals for the eight killed in the helicopter strike.
The attack drew widespread international condemnation, including from U.S. officials, who called it a major setback to peacemaking efforts.
The criticism did not sway top Israeli officials, who said Israel will continue its policy of targeting Palestinian militants believed to be planning attacks on Israeli targets. Sharon reached the decision Wednesday during a five- hour meeting of his Security Cabinet.
Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts to halt the violence held out little hope of imminent success.
Israeli sources spoke of disagreement within the Bush administration, with Secretary of State Colin Powell anxious for an immediate agreement on observers, while the president and other policymakers were said to be less eager for a debate with Sharon about the composition of the team while violence still rages on the ground.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer appeared to reflect the latter approach when he said Monday that a lasting cease-fire was the “necessary prerequisite” for the dispatch of monitors.
“Only at that time will the question of monitors possibly come up,” he said. “It would have to be agreed to by both sides.”
As the week wore on, however, agreement by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority about most anything seemed highly unlikely.
(JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)