In Jerusalem, clashes over Temple Mount, Al Aqsa Mosque

Israeli police and Palestinians skirmished Sunday over the closure of Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem for second week in a row.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Palestinian students gesture during a rally in Gaza City to show solidarity with Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque on Sunday.
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Israeli police shut down access to key Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem's Old City on Sunday, spurring Palestinian protesters to throw rocks and bottles in protest – marking the second consecutive Sunday of disturbances near the city's overlapping points of prayer for Jews and Muslims.

Clashes broke out in reaction to Israel's closure of the entrances to the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest site. About 150 Palestinians who gathered for a prayer service near the city's Lion's Gate on Sunday morning hurled rocks and bottles at Israeli police, who fired tear gas in attempt to disperse the crowd. Palestinian officials said nine people were treated for light injuries, primarily tear gas inhalation. Israel said two of its policeman were sent to hospitals after being injured by rocks and bottles.

An Israeli police spokesman said that the decision to close the site was made following calls in various Palestinian media on Saturday night to march on the Haram el-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary), as it is called in Arabic – referred to by Israelis as the Temple Mount. Several Islamic groups claim that an Israeli archeological dig below the site is endangering Al Aqsa and that it will soon collapse, a claim Israel denies.

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Various Palestinian Islamists had called on Saturday evening for people to march en masse to the site. Overnight, a group of several dozen Palestinians entered the mosque compound to confront what they feared would be a visit Sunday by Jewish extremists.

The site was closed "for security reasons," says Israel Police Spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld.

"It was closed in order to prevent any disturbances from breaking out today on the Temple Mount. Yesterday and today there were calls to come and protect the Temple Mount, and it was felt that this measure was necessary to prevent any further disturbances," Rosenfeld says. By the afternoon, he says, police had decided to let elderly people and children enter the mosque compound, but not young men.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) Chief Negotiator, Saeb Erekat, last week called Israel's actions in Jerusalem at that time an "escalation." A week ago, unrest erupted in the same area when a group of French tourists entered the Al Aqsa compound. Palestinians said they were Jewish extremists.

One of the three Palestinians arrested Sunday was Khatem Abdel Khader, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's former advisor on Jerusalem affairs. Israeli police also arrested and are questioning Kamel Khatib, of the Islamic Movement of the North, a hard-line Islamist group that operates inside Israel. The movement's leadership regularly warns of the impending destruction of the Al Aqsa Mosque at Israeli hands.

(Read more about the Islamic Movement of the North here.)

Abdel Hamid Shawara, a witnesses to the clashes, says that Israeli police were stopping young men trying to get inside the mosque.

"They're not allowing us to pray inside the mosque," Mr. Sharawa says. "We have been turned away and they have closed all doors to Al Asqa. Palestinians will continue to challenge the Israelis on this."

Access to the city's holy sites are in particularly high demand this week because of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which Christians mark as the Feast of the Tabernacles. Police said they would be on high alert on Monday because it is the day in which thousands flock to the Old City to attend the "Priestly Blessing" at the Western Wall, which is situated just below the Al Aqsa compound. The proximity of the two sites has caused friction and violence on many occasions.

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