TOPICS > Politics

Mosque Incident in Jerusalem

December 22, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Today’s assault on Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Maher drew immediate condemnations from both the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers. A former ambassador to Washington, who as a young diplomat accompanied Anwar Sadat to Camp David, Maher has been working with the U.S. to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

For more on what happened today, we go to “New York times” correspondent Greg Myre in Jerusalem. Greg, welcome. There have been a lot of conflicting reports about what happened today. What can you tell us about how this incident unfolded?

GREG MYRE: The Egyptian foreign minister, Mr. Maher, had just wrapped up some discussion with the Israelis. He went up to the noble sanctuary and went into the al-Aqsa mosque, and as he went in, he was immediately assaulted.

People started shouting, “traitor!” And “go back to Sharon!” And people also threw shoes at him. He had an entourage that was jostled about quite a bit. And the incident only took a couple minutes before he was whisked out, but you could see in the pictures he looked very panicked and was short of breath.

After they took him out of there, he was taken to an Israeli hospital for an examination. So no serious injuries, but the symbolism of this, an Egyptian minister being attacked by Palestinians at a very important Islamic religious shrine, had a lot of significance.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, as you noted, the al-Aqsa mosque is an important religious shrine. It’s been a flash point before. Who has the security responsibilities there?

GREG MYRE: Well, the Israelis have security responsibility around the perimeter, and they go up to the gate. But the Israelis said that Mr. Maher requested that they not accompany him inside the mosque.

And the Israeli police said they went into the compound with him, but not into the mosque. And so, when he went into the mosque, he had his own entourage. It’s not entirely clear whether he had bodyguards or just members of his entourage.

But there was nobody with weapons inside the mosque, and that’s when the assault took place. The Israeli police did go inside after he became caught up in the melee, and they helped extract him from the scene, but they did not go into the mosque initially with him.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there an official group claiming responsibility for these… for this attack, and who are they?

GREG MYRE: What it appears to be, from some witnesses up there, is this small group called the Islamic Liberation Party. It’s a group that really has not been involved in the violence or the politics here. They’re very obscure. They’re not involved in very much activity.

What they are is a Muslim fundamentalist group that wants Islamic rule throughout the Arab and Islamic world, and they seem to feel this was an appropriate place for them to take action. But it’s not a group that we hear a lot about. They’ve been a group that you just don’t hear about throughout this past three years of fighting.

MARGARET WARNER: Egypt has been involved recently in trying to revive efforts to coax the really active radical groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas into some sort of a cease- fire. Was Maher’s trip to Israel part of that?

GREG MYRE: In the larger sense, yes. Egypt has been trying to mediate between both sides. As you mentioned, they’ve been working with the Palestinian factions. This trip, though, today he met solely with Israeli officials: Prime Minister Sharon, the president, the foreign minister.

So he was really just dealing with the Israelis on this trip. And that’s part of the process of getting the two sides talking again. For a month now, they’ve been trying to arrange a meeting between the Israeli prime minister, Mr. Sharon, and the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia. They haven’t been able to do that. It seems to be part of that effort to get the sides talking again.

MARGARET WARNER: And what was the outcome of today’s meeting?

GREG MYRE: Well, nothing definitive. Nothing was announced out of that. The Israelis, though, are responding very favorably. They’ve been very supportive of the Egyptian efforts, both to get a cease-fire among the Palestinian factions, and they very much want to rebuild the strained relations or strained ties with Egypt.

So the Israelis are supportive of what’s going on here. They hinted that they would welcome an Egyptian-brokered truce. So the Israelis are sounding positive, but we didn’t have any substantive or definitive results today.

MARGARET WARNER: The Israeli and Palestinian officials you spoke with today, did they feel this attack on Maher reflected any kind of widespread unhappiness at Egypt’s role?

GREG MYRE: No, they didn’t say that. I think the assumption was that this was a small group that carried out this action, and it didn’t necessarily represent larger groups.

Now, having said that, the Palestinian leadership is very much supportive of what the Egyptians are doing, as are the Israelis, so the leaderships on both sides are very comfortable with what the Egyptians are doing.

Most of the other factions, even including the more extreme factions like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have been willing to go to Cairo and meet with the Egyptians. So there has certainly been… all of the main groups on the Palestinian side and the Israeli government have been pleased with the Egyptian role, so it seems we’re talking about a small group that was responsible for today’s actions.

MARGARET WARNER: Greg Myre, thanks so much.

GREG MYRE: Thank you.