On October 8, 1990, members of the “Temple Mount Faithful” fringe Jewish group set out to the Temple Mount, holy to both Jews and Muslims, in order to lay a cornerstone for the “third temple.” The rioting, death and injury that followed would set off a new round of violence, worldwide condemnation of Israel, and investigations on two sides of the globe.
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Three years after the start of the First Intifada, tensions were running high both in Israel and the wider Middle East. Years of unrest in the Palestinian territories had put Israeli authorities on edge and the world was preparing for an imminent US-led military campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Since the Israeli capture of east Jerusalem in 1967, a finely tuned and delicate arrangement had been in place whereby the Jordanian Waqf, an Islamic trust responsible for holy sites, controlled the Al-Aksa Mosque and Dome of the Rock on top the Temple Mount (Haram a-Sharif to Muslims). Jews and non-Muslims were allowed to enter the compound but strictly prohibited from practicing any non-Muslim prayer. Israel took responsibility for securing and policing the site.
For decades, there had been widespread suspicion among Palestinians and Muslims that Israel and Jews had nefarious intentions to damage or remove the Muslim presence at the site in order to rebuild the Jewish temple, the second of which was destroyed over 1900 years earlier.
So in 1990 when it was announced that the Temple Mount Faithful were
planning to lay a cornerstone for the construction of a new temple at
the site, tensions reached dangerous levels.
In the early morning of October 8, police commanders arrived at the
Temple Mount to meet with Waqf officials amid warnings of disturbances.
The senior officers assured the Muslim leaders that the Temple Mount
Faithful group would not arrive at the holy site that day.
Despite the assurances, however, nearly two-dozen members of the group gathered at the Temple Mount less than three hours later.
Although the provocative Jewish group departed under police escort after
no more than 10 minutes, tensions had been raised. Sermons filled with
incitment were broadcast through speakers and youths began gathering
rocks from a nearby construction site. Police attempted to warn Waqf
officials to calm the situation, but it was already spiraling out of
A short time later, between 2,000 and 3,000 Arabs rushed the 44 Border
Policemen positioned at the perimeter of the Temple Mount and began
throwing stones and iron construction materials at them. Debris was also
launched at Jewish worshipers praying at the Western Wall Plaza below.
The officers quickly retreated and the Jewish worshipers were evacuated to safety.
Less than an hour later, however, the riotous crowd stormed the Temple
Mount Police Station where two Israeli officers had been left behind.
The two managed to escape from the furious mob but news of their safety
was never relayed to other officers, leading to a situation where
security forces feared an imminent lynching.
At that point, a larger force of police officers entered the Temple
Mount through the Mughrabi Gate where they were met with a barrage of
stones and debris. Officers fired tear gas at the mob but the canisters
were merely thrown back toward them. Rubber bullets were fired into the
crowd but with little effect.
Fearing for their lives, police began firing live rounds into the air
and shortly thereafter, into the crowd. The riot and ensuing police
gunfire continued and spread throughout the compound and surrounding
areas for several hours.
At the end of the day, at least 18 Palestinians had been killed (figures
vary from 18 to 23). Nineteen policemen, some nine Jewish worshipers
and around 150 Palestinians were also injured in the riot.
The use of live fire by Israeli police immediately drew world
condemnation. The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a
condemning “the acts of violence committed by the Israeli
forces resulting in injuries and loss of human life” and calling for a
UN-sponsored investigation to report on the events.
The Israeli government at the time rejected both the UN condemnation and
the call for an investigatory mission, refusing to grant entry to the
UN team. The United States attempted to persuade then-prime minister
Yitzhak Shamir to allow a UN mission to investigate, but the requests
Twelve days later, the UNSC unanimously passed a second resolution
time condemning Israel’s refusal to cooperate with its investigation.
Within Israel – and abroad – at the time, it was alleged that the United
States that came down so hard on Israel because it feared losing the
coalition of Arab countries it was building ahead of the Persian Gulf
War against Iraq. The US denied any connection between the two events
but an official in Washington described US support for the UN resolution
to the Boston Globe
as "a reflection of US-Israel relations," revealing that it was "designed to show US evenhandedness to the Arabs."
A French diplomat gave a more detailed explanation of the connection
between the UN resolution and attempts to build consensus in the Arab
world against Saddam Hussein: "We always knew that if this issue was put
to the Security Council and it was not handled correctly that it would
lead to problems on the other issue."
An Israeli report released later that month ultimately criticized the
police's handling of the events of October 8. Police, the Zamir
Commission said, had "fail[ed] to anticipate events and to heed warning
signals before the riots," The Jerusalem Post
reported at the time. "The report also noted that there were cases of
indiscriminate firing" by officers. However, the Israeli report, unlike
the one commissioned by the UN, blamed the violence entirely on
Palestinians and all officers involved were eventually exonerated.