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SOON after early-morning prayers at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque one day last week, flames burst from the ceiling beneath its famed silver dome. For three hours, the fire raged, destroying part of the roof and an 800-year-old pulpit of exquisitely carved cedarwood and inlaid ivory, a gift from the Islamic hero Saladin (1137-1193). Before Israeli and Arab firemen could extinguish the flames or anyone could investigate the fire, the entire Middle East was echoing with outraged Moslem demands for jihad—holy war.

Al Aqsa is one of the holiest shrines in all Islam. It is inside a 34-acre compound that also contains the Dome of the Rock mosque, built on the site from which Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven. The compound ranks behind only Mecca and Medina in importance to Moslems. Al Aqsa itself is considered a particularly propitious place from which to begin a had, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. Jews also revere the compound as the traditional site of Solomon's temple.

Automatic Assumption. In their fury, many Moslems automatically assumed that the Al Aqsa blaze had been started deliberately—and by an Israeli. Hundreds of Arabs rushed to the still-burning mosque, threatening firemen who were trying to control the blaze and shouting "Nasser! Nass-er!" When Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan arrived on the scene, he was jeered. An Arab mob coursed down the Via Dolorosa—the path Jesus took to the Crucifixion—shouting "Death to Israel!" Police blocked them at the fifth Station of the Cross.

The Israelis, who have ruled Arab Jerusalem since 1967, protested their innocence, but in vain. Premier Golda Meir convoked an emergency Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem to offer help in repairing the mosque (the offer was spurned) and to appoint an investigating commission that included two Arab dignitaries (local Moslems named their own board of inquiry). Sheik Hilmi Al-Muh-tasib, chairman of Jerusalem's Moslem Council, quickly summoned newsmen to pointedly announce that "a blond, freckled man dressed in khaki, who did not appear to be a Palestinian," had been seen fleeing from the mosque just before the fire. That was all the information that Arab propagandists needed. Cairo Radio called the fire a "premeditated crime." Al-Fatah, the Palestinian Arab commando organization, demanded shrilly in its broadcasts: "Moslems, what are you waiting for? The Zionists are burning down your sacred shrines. How can you face the Prophet Mohammed?" Jordan's King Hussein, whose grandfather King Abdullah was assassinated by a Palestinian Arab gunman in front of the Aqsa mosque in 1951, called for an Arab summit meeting.

At first the Israelis maintained that the fire was accidental. A welding torch was found beneath the roof, where work men had been repairing old timbers treated with inflammable linseed oil. Some angry Israelis suggested that, just as the Nazis had burned down the Reichstag and blamed it on the Communists, Al-Fatah terrorists had set fire to the shrine so that the Israelis could be blamed and emotions aroused throughout the Arab world.

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