Calm prevails at Jerusalem holy site: Did US diplomacy help?

Israel lifted age restrictions on Palestinian men seeking to pray Friday at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque, a day after Secretary of State Kerry met with leaders of Jordan and Israel.

Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP
A Palestinian launches fireworks during clashes with Israeli soldiers following a protest against Israeli restrictions to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, at the Qalandia checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. In recent weeks, Palestinians have clashed with police in response to visits to the holy site by Jewish worshippers. The visits have stoked fears among the Palestinians that Israel intends to alter decades-old arrangements surrounding access to the site, something Israel adamantly denies.

A Jerusalem holy site at the heart of recent tensions between Israelis and Palestinians was quiet on Friday, police said, after age restrictions for Muslim men who wanted to pray there were lifted for the first time in weeks, but minor clashes with Palestinian protesters continued in the West Bank.

Police have said age restrictions banning Muslim men under the age of 35 are occasionally imposed on the holy site in an attempt to reduce violence that often involves young Palestinians throwing rocks and firecrackers in protests held at the compound, which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.

Palestinians have protested against age limitations in the past. It's not clear if the calm Friday was due to the lifting of the restrictions – a possible confidence building measure – or the result of diplomatic progress the night before.

The development came a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Jordan's King Abdullah II in an attempt to restore calm in the holy city, which has seen months of tension and violent confrontations.

The imam of the compound's Al-Aqsa Mosque, Ekrima Sabri, said "no instructions" were given for the calm Friday. "Police treated the worshipers peacefully so they were peaceful," he said.

Azzam Khatib, director general of the, waqf, Jordan's Islamic authority, which manages the site, said "40,000 worshipers came today peacefully and prayed and left the mosque quietly. We hope it's a new page. We will monitor the Israeli performance in the coming days and weeks."

Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said the site was open to Muslims of all ages for weekly prayers and there were no immediate reports of violence.
In recent weeks, Palestinians have clashed with police at the holy site, sometimes in response to visits by Jewish worshipers. The visits have stoked fears and allegations among the Palestinians that Israel intends to alter decades-old arrangements regarding access to the site, something Israel adamantly denies.

Samri said police are investigating claims that an 11-year-old Palestinian boy was seriously wounded in a protest Thursday in East Jerusalem.
Samer Mahmoud said his son Saleh was struck in the face by a rubber bullet and is being treated in the intensive care unit at Israel's Hadassah Hospital.  "The doctors at Hadassah told me there is no hope for him to see in his right eye," he said.

Agreement on 'specific and practical' steps

Kerry said after Thursday's meeting that Israel and Jordan have committed to a series of "specific and practical" steps to reduce spiraling tensions in Jerusalem and that the Palestinians have pledged to curb incitement and violence, without offering further details.

Long-simmering animosity has boiled over into violent Palestinian protests and attacks that have killed six people, including a baby, and injured more than a dozen others.

Much of the violence stems from tensions surrounding the Jerusalem holy site referred to by Jews as the Temple Mount because of the Jewish temples that stood there in biblical times. It is the most sacred place in Judaism. Muslims refer to it as the Noble Sanctuary, and it is their third holiest site, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

The site is so holy that Jews have traditionally refrained from going there, instead praying at the adjacent Western Wall. Israel's chief rabbis have urged people not to ascend to the area, arguing that the temple's precise former location on the mount is unclear and Jews could inadvertently enter the holiest area of the once-standing temple, where it was forbidden to tread.

But in recent years, a small but growing number of Jews, including ultranationalist lawmakers, have begun regularly visiting the site.

The holy site's status quo

Israel has accused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of fueling tensions in Jerusalem. Abbas accused Mr. Netanyahu this week of leading the region into a "religious war." Netanyahu responded by calling Mr. Abbas a liar and accusing him of incitement.

Abbas recently called for Jews to be banned from the Jerusalem holy site, urging Palestinians to guard the compound against visiting Jews.

Muslim authorities reporting to Jordan have continued to administer the site since East Jerusalem's capture by Israel in 1967. Jews are allowed to visit, but may not pray there. Muslim worshipers view Jewish prayer at the site as a provocation, and Israeli authorities place tough restrictions on it.

Netanyahu has insisted that Israel has no plans to change the arrangements at the holy site.

Israeli police said they dispersed about 100 Palestinians who blocked a road near Jerusalem. Palestinians also clashed with Israeli forces at Qalandia in the West Bank after Muslim prayers, throwing rocks at police and burning tires.

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