Israeli, Jordanian leaders speak in bid to ease tensions in Jerusalem over holy sites

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved to ease tensions at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site Thursday, calling Jordan’s king to reassert his commitment to protecting the sacred shrines in hopes of quieting weeks of unrest.

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved to ease tensions at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site Thursday, calling Jordan’s king to reassert his commitment to protecting the sacred shrines in hopes of quieting weeks of unrest.

His outreach came a day after Jordan, a key ally of Israel, recalled its ambassador to protest what it called an “unacceptable” Israeli police assault on the hilltop compound in Jerusalem’s Old City. Tensions were further heightened after a Palestinian slammed his van into a crowd waiting at a train stop, killing an Israeli policeman, in what his family and the militant group Hamas said was a revenge attack.

The holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and is the most sacred spot in Judaism. Muslims also revere it as the Noble Sanctuary, Islam’s third-holiest site and home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the gold-topped Dome of the Rock.

Since Israel captured east Jerusalem and the Old City in 1967, Jewish worshippers have been allowed to visit — but not pray — at the site. The area is run by Muslim authorities under the custody of Jordan.

It has been the focus of weeks of unrest, including clashes Wednesday as a group of religious Jews planned to visit. The activists seek greater Jewish access to the site — raising fears among Muslims that Israel is quietly trying to take it over.

In the phone conversation with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Netanyahu “reiterated Israel’s commitment to preserve the status quo,” his office said. “Both leaders called for an immediate end to all acts of violence and incitement.”

Earlier, his office said anyone calling for changes in the longstanding arrangement “is expressing a personal opinion and not the views of the government.”

In Amman, the palace confirmed that Netanyahu had called. “King Abdullah stressed during the phone call Jordan’s rejection for any measures harming the Al-Aqsa Mosque and its sanctity,” a statement said.

Netanyahu’s outreach reflected the value Israel places on its relations with Jordan — one of two Arab countries at peace with Israel. It also reflected the concerns that weeks of unrest in east Jerusalem could explode into wider violence.

A series of Israeli announcements for new settlement construction in east Jerusalem — the section of the city claimed by the Palestinians as their capital — has added to the tense atmosphere and drawn heavy international criticism.

In Wednesday’s clash, a crowd of Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque, hurling stones, metal rods and firecrackers at security forces in violence that erupted ahead of a visit by a Jewish group.

Israeli riot police with protective shields responded by firing stun grenades to disperse the crowd, though police spokeswoman Lubi Samri said none of the grenades were thrown into the mosque. Carpets inside the mosque were singed, though it was unclear whether Israeli fire or the firecrackers caused the damage.

Azzam Khatib, director of the Waqf, the Muslim religious authority in charge of the site, said Muslim leaders had urged Israel not to allow non-Muslims into the site because of the tense situation.

Instead, he said about 300 Israeli police entered the area early in the morning, sparking the clashes.

“What happened was unprecedented,” he said. He said Israeli police “went deep inside wearing their shoes and almost reached the altar inside.”

Khatib said that in the past 15 years or so, the number of Jews visiting the area each day has expanded from three or four to more than 50. Israel, meanwhile, frequently restricts Muslim access to the mosque as a security measure.

“Is that the status quo that Netanyahu is talking about?” he said.

Israeli police denied the claims, saying its forces had gone into the entrance of the building to remove the barricades. Officers were pelted with large blocks and fireworks as they approached the building. Police displayed dozens of large firecrackers confiscated in the raid, and chairs and book cases were strewn about.

Shortly after Wednesday’s clash, a Palestinian motorist rammed his van into a crowd waiting for a train, killing the policeman and wounding more than a dozen others. It was the second such attack in two weeks.

The wife of the attacker said he had been angered by the confrontation at the holy site earlier in the day.

Later Wednesday, a Palestinian motorist drove into a group of soldiers in the West Bank, wounding three. The motorist turned himself in to Israeli security forces Thursday, the army said.

In recent weeks, hard-line Israeli politicians have stepped up demands for the removal of restrictions preventing Jews from praying at the site. Such demands have been raised almost from the day the government imposed restrictions on Jewish prayer there in the immediate wake of the 1967 Middle East war.

That conflict saw Israel seize east Jerusalem, which includes the holy sites, along with the West Bank and Gaza, territories where Palestinians want to establish an independent state.

The durability of the restrictions reflect a longstanding Israeli desire not to inflame Muslim sensitivities and a formal rabbinical ban on praying in an area that tradition holds was the site of Judaism’s ancient holy temples.

But tensions have increased substantially in recent weeks, buoyed by charges from both Israelis and Palestinians over the explosive issue.

Last month, a Palestinian rammed his vehicle into a crowded train stop in east Jerusalem, killing a 3-month-old Israeli-American girl and a 22-year-old Ecuadorean woman. Days later, police shot and killed the suspected gunman behind a separate drive-by attack on Yehuda Glick, a rabbi and activist who has pushed for greater Jewish access to the sacred hilltop compound. Glick remains hospitalized.

Reacting Thursday to comments from Israeli security officials that any change in the status of the site could raise tensions past the breaking point, Moshe Feiglin, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, said the struggle there was directly related to Israeli efforts to achieve overall national security.

“Any pullback from the Temple Mount will not end just at its gates,” he said. “This society has to decide whether it is willing to pay the price to maintain its control, not only at the site, but in Israel as a whole.”

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