Heavy security at contested Jerusalem shrine

Peter Enav
Associated Press

Jerusalem — Israel’s prime minister blamed “militant Islamic incitement” for growing tensions in Jerusalem, especially at a contested holy site that was ringed Friday by hundreds of Israeli riot police as about 15,000 Muslims performed weekly prayers there.

The prayers ended peacefully, though clashes erupted again later in the day between Palestinian stone-throwers and Israeli troops in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem, at the main Israeli checkpoint on the outskirts of the city and at several locations in the West Bank.

Tensions have been rising in recent weeks over the Jerusalem shrine, known to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

They spiked on Wednesday during a confrontation between police and Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is contained within the site.

The complex, the third holiest site in Islam, houses both Al-Aqsa and the gold-topped Dome of the Rock. Jews also revere it as the location of their biblical temples and consider it the most sacred location in their faith.

Since Israel captured the sacred plateau, along with the rest of east Jerusalem, from Jordan in 1967, Jewish worshippers have been allowed to visit — but not pray — at the site. The area is run by Muslim authorities under Jordanian custody.

In recent months, several senior members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, including Housing Minister Uri Ariel and Deputy Parliament Speaker Moshe Feiglin, have called for a greater Jewish presence and the right to prayer on the mount.

At the same time, the number of Jewish visitors to the site has increased over the years, raising fears among Muslims that this is part of a gradual Jewish takeover.

On Friday, 1,300 Israeli riot police fanned out around the mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, sealing off access roads to enforce a government decision to bar Muslim men under the age of 35 from praying there. The age limit varies from Friday to Friday.

Riot police manned metal barricades, checking identity papers and directing pedestrians.

At one checkpoint in the Wadi Joz area, just outside the Old City, some 500 young Palestinians who were denied entry to the mosque compound because of their age performed prayers on a street, kneeling on carpets spread on the asphalt. They were faced by a row of riot police in black uniforms and helmets, as well as several officers on horseback.

“We are steadfast here,” said one of the worshippers, who only identified himself by his first name, Raed, for fear of Israeli repercussions. “We pray here despite the Israeli restraints.”

In the Old City, 62-year-old Walid Mohammed blamed Israel for ratcheting up tensions in the area, as dozens of police officers patrolled nervously in front of his coffee shop.

“The arrogance of the Israeli government is the main cause of troubles in our country,” he said. “They want to control the Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

Mohammed blamed tensions on what he said were unfair access restrictions for Muslims at a time of a growing Jewish presence at the mosque compound.

Police spokeswoman Luba Samri denied that police were favoring one religion over the other and refuted Palestinian claims that the kind of mass police presence ordered Friday was contributing to tensions in the area.

“We don’t operate according to what the Palestinians would like,” she said. “We operate according to what we feel we need to do, based on intelligence reports and our analysis of the situation, to maintain law and order in the area.”

Recently, there have been near-daily clashes between stone-throwing Palestinians and Israeli riot police, as well as several deadly attacks by Palestinians.

On Wednesday, a Hamas militant slammed a minivan into a crowd at a Jerusalem light rail platform, killing one person and injuring 13, one of whom died on Friday.

Last week, another Palestinian drove his vehicle into a light rail platform, killing a baby girl and an Ecuadorian woman. Earlier, a Palestinian man seriously wounded an Israeli advocate of greater Jewish rights at the Jerusalem holy site, and was later killed by police.

Underlying the tensions is long-running frustration among the city’s 300,000 Palestinians with what many of them view as oppressive Israeli practices, such as restrictions on building and a separation wall that cuts through Arab neighborhoods.

Trying to harness those frustrations, the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas, with whom Israel fought a bloody 50-day war in the Gaza Strip this summer, called Friday for a “popular uprising” all over the Palestinian territories to “defend the Al-Aqsa Mosque” in Jerusalem.

Clashes also took place on Friday in the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat in Jerusalem, with security forces chasing after rock-throwing Palestinians. At the Qalandiya checkpoint north of the city, police fired tear gas canisters at Palestinian protesters. No serious injuries were reported in the violence.

Netanyahu, meeting with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, said Friday that Israel is committed to freedom of worship in Jerusalem and blamed Palestinian militants for the rising tensions in the city.

“I have to say that we are welcoming you at a time when militant Islamic incitement is trying to fan violence in Israel, and especially in Jerusalem and especially on the Temple Mount, with the effort of changing the status quo on the Temple Mount,” he said.

Earlier in the week, Netanyahu had noted that members of his coalition who spoke out in favor of changing the status quo at the site, including by calling for the right to Jewish worship there, were expressing their private views and not speaking in the name of the government.

Mogherini called for a lowering of tensions at the holy site, saying that “what is happening and what has happened here in Jerusalem in the last week is extremely worrying.”

Rabbinical opinion over prayer at the sacred site is deeply divided. Many ultra-Orthodox rabbis oppose prayer there under current conditions as a sacrilege, while some nationalist clerics, starting in the 1990s, have encouraged attempts to pray there.

Speaking at the funeral of Ahron Badani, 17, the Israeli who died Friday from wounds sustained during Wednesday’s attack, Israel’s chief Sephardi rabbi called right wing encouragement for Israelis to pray at the Temple Mount “incitement” and said it had to stop.

“I issue a call that it is prohibited for Jews to go to the Temple Mount,” said Yitzhak Yosef. “I issue a call to end this so that the blood of the people of Israel will flow no more.”