This Week in History: Deadly riots on the Temple Mount

After fringe Jewish group attempts to lay cornerstone for a “third temple" in 1990, Palestinians riot and Israeli police fire live bullets into the mob.

Palestinians, Israeli police clash at Temple Mount 311 (R) (photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
Palestinians, Israeli police clash at Temple Mount 311 (R)
(photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
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.
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.
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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 control.
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 resolution 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 were refused.
Twelve days later, the UNSC unanimously passed a second resolution, this 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.