Jerusalem holy site reopens as tensions churn

Israel reopened access to the Al Aqsa Mosque to Palestinian women and men over 50 years old for Friday prayers, but security forces are on alert after Fatah and Hamas called for 'a day of rage.'

Ahmed Zakot/Reuters
Palestinian children look out of a vehicle's window during an anti-Israel rally over the entry restrictions to the al-Aqsa mosque, in the northern Gaza Strip Friday. Muslim men over 50 prayed at the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's Old City on Friday amid intense security, a day after Israel closed all access to the sacred compound for the first time in more than a decade following violence on the streets.

Amid heavy security, access to Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site was reopened for Muslim prayers Friday, a day after Palestinians decried its temporary closure by Israel as a “declaration of war.”

Tensions remained high in Jerusalem in the aftermath of an assassination attempt against a Jewish activist and the killing Thursday of his alleged assailant by police.

Early prayers at the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, passed without incident, and only limited clashes between young Palestinian stone-throwers and Israeli police were subsequently reported in East Jerusalem. But Israeli security forces remained on high alert, bracing for afternoon demonstrations in the city and in the West Bank after both Fatah and Hamas called for Friday to be a “day of rage.”

As a precaution, Israel on Friday had limited access to the mosque to Palestinian men over the age of 50 and to women of all ages. The mosque is located on a man-made plateau in Jerusalem’s Old City. It is revered by Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, and by Jews as the Temple Mount, site of the ancient Jewish Temple and the holiest site in Judaism.

Palestinian unrest has been simmering in East Jerusalem ever since the early summer abduction and murder of a Palestinian teenager by Jews seeking retribution for the abduction and murder of three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank, incidents that helped lead to the summer war in the Gaza Strip. But ever-present friction over access to the Muslim-administered Jerusalem holy sites, where Jews may enter but not pray, has stoked those tensions.

According to The New York Times, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to calm tensions over the holy site by saying he has no intention of changing the long-standing status quo there.

Israel seized [the Temple Mount] with the rest of East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967, but it immediately handed back control of everything but security at the site to the Islamic Waqf, which is run by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

A small band of religious Jews, including [Yehuda] Glick, a 48-year-old Israeli-American who was seriously wounded by four gunshots on Wednesday night, have agitated in recent years against Israel’s prohibition of non-Muslim prayer at the site, with some calling for a third temple to be erected there. Palestinian, Jordanian, and other Arab and Islamic leaders have warned that this could lead to a holy war, and clashes between worshipers and security forces have become more frequent.

Residents of East Jerusalem said Thursday marked the first time Al Aqsa had been closed to all visitors – Muslims, Jews, and tourists – since 2000, when the second Palestinian uprising began, Reuters reported, but the Waqf said it was the first full closure since 1967.

"I normally go five times a day to pray, but the police are not letting me today," said Ahmed Abu Zaaror, 21, who runs a fruit stand in the Muslim quarter of the Old City. Asked if he was angry at the situation he said:

"What can I say? I have to keep all my anger inside."

Beyond the friction over the Old City sites, tensions in Jerusalem have been stoked by Israeli plans to build additional housing in neighborhoods of occupied East Jerusalem, which Palestinians regard as their future capital. The weeks of unrest have also seen the emergence of a new generation of Palestinian protesters who, having grown up in a city divided by security barriers, are resentful over inequities between the city’s Jewish and Arab residents.

As the Christian Science Monitor’s Christa Case Bryant reports:

The uptick in tensions has been triggered by a series of discrete events, but is fueled by deep grievances that some say have created the worst schism between the city’s Jews and Arabs since the 1967 war.

On the frontlines of daily clashes, a new generation of Palestinian protesters appears to be emerging – kids and teenagers over whom their elders are either unwilling or unable to exert control.

“Israel doesn’t know that they educate children to hate Israel,” says community leader Jawad Siyam of Silwan, who says he has argued in vain with his 10-year-old son to stop throwing stones. “They are not afraid of Israel at all, they don’t believe in living with Israelis at all.”

“This is the kind of anger that can’t be manufactured, that can’t be turned off,” says Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer who has long worked in East Jerusalem.

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