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Palestinians say opposition tour of holy site could cause bloodshed

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Palestinians leaders warned Wednesday that if Israel's hard-line opposition leader goes ahead with his tour of Islamic holy sites on a disputed hilltop in Jerusalem, it could spark bloody battles between Jews and Arabs.

Likud leader Ariel Sharon plans to enter the hill early Thursday morning to reinforce Israel's claim of sovereignty there. In Israel-Palestinian negotiations, both sides claim the hill. Jews call it the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest place, where the biblical Jewish Temples stood. A Muslim shrine and mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, are built over the Temple ruins.

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The issue has stalemated the negotiations. Opponents of Prime Minister Ehud Barak charge that he is prepared to concede Israeli sovereignty over the site.

Palestinian security chief Jibril Rajoub warned that if Sharon goes ahead with his tour of the site, which Muslims call Haram as-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, it could lead to a reprise of battles between Israelis and Palestinians in 1990 and 1996.

Rumors that Jewish extremists planned to start rebuilding the Jewish Temple set off a riot on the hill in 1990. Israeli police opened fire, killing 19 Palestinians and wounding 140.

In 1996, Palestinians rioted in the West Bank and Gaza after Israel opened an ancient tunnel near the Jerusalem mosque complex. In exchanges of fire, 58 Palestinians and 15 Israeli soldiers were killed.

Sharon's visit would be a political demonstration, said Likud spokesman Ofir Akounis. "We are visiting the Temple Mount to show that under a Likud government it will remain under Israeli sovereignty," Akounis said.

Israel captured the Old City in the 1967 Mideast war. Though taking control of the Temple Mount was a highlight of the war for Israelis, Israel quickly turned control of the site back to the Muslims to prevent conflicts there. Around the same time, Israel declared its sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, including the Arab section and all of the Old City.

In a statement, the Palestinian Information Ministry called on the Israeli government "to prevent this provocative visit, to avoid a new massacre of Palestinians."

Rajoub told reporters, "If, God forbid, something happens in Jerusalem, it will spread throughout the territories and I think there will also be a reaction in the Arab world and the Muslim world."

Akounis said the visit was approved by the Israeli police, and the Likud is not frightened by threats from the Palestinians. "They are not sovereign on the Temple Mount and they ought to lower their tone. Every Jew has a right to visit there," he said.

Barak's One Israel party also condemned the planned visit as "nothing but a pointless provocation which could even be dangerous."

Copyright 2000 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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