JERUSALEM — Hundreds of Palestinians knelt on prayer carpets in a Jerusalem street Friday, faced by a cordon of Israeli riot police who blocked them from reaching Islam’s third- holiest shrine in the nearby Old City.
The worshippers eventually dispersed peacefully, but the scene highlighted the escalating tensions over the holy site — a walled, hilltop plateau known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
Israel argues that restricting access to the shrine, which has been common in recent weeks, is needed to clamp down on growing unrest in the contested city of 810,000 people. On Friday, Muslims under age 35 were denied entry, while restrictions were broader in preceding weeks.
Jerusalem’s Muslims, who make up about a third of the population, say the security clampdown only heightens fears that their traditional control of the holy site, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the gold-topped Dome of the Rock, is under threat from Jewish zealots.
In recent weeks, senior members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition have called for a greater Jewish presence and right to prayer on the mount, which is Judaism’s holiest site, stirring Muslim worries about encroachment. Under an arrangement in place since Israel’s capture of the Old City and its shrines in 1967, the sacred plateau is administered by Muslims reporting to Jordan, while Jews have a right to visit.
Any perceived attempt to change the existing prayer arrangements at the shrine is seen by local Muslims as highly provocative.
They say they view it as another threat to their status and identity. Many Palestinian residents of the city complain of high taxes for poor municipal services, compared with those offered in Jewish neighbourhoods, as well as severe restrictions on building permits.
Mohammed Fakhouri, a 38-year-old shopkeeper in the Old City, said the restrictions on prayer at the Al-Aqsa Mosque are the last straw, adding that he hasn’t been able to attend for the past five weeks because of the age limits.
“Like the Jewish people, we pay taxes, and we don’t get anything from Israel,” he said. “They don’t let us build houses. … If you can’t go pray, what’s after this?”
Muslims from the West Bank face even greater difficulties in reaching the shrine because they must have Israeli permits to enter Jerusalem. Those with permits pass through barbed-wire topped terminals in Israel’s separation barrier, often enduring long waits en route to the mosque.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu reassured Jordan’s King Abdullah II that Israel would not change the status quo at the holy site and that Israeli politicians expressing a different view were not speaking for the government. Jordan had recalled its ambassador in protest after a police raid over a clash at the entrance to the mosque.
On Friday, Netanyahu made no mention of those politicians, instead blaming “militant Islamic incitement” for the increasing violence in Jerusalem.
This has included near-daily clashes between Palestinian stone-throwers and Israeli police in Arab neighbourhoods of the city and two deadly attacks in which Palestinians drove vehicles into crowds waiting at light-rail stops in Jerusalem. In another incident, a Palestinian on a motorcycle shot and seriously wounded a prominent Jewish campaigner for more access to the Temple Mount.
The most recent attack, on Wednesday, was carried out by an activist from the Islamic militant group Hamas who drove his minivan into a train stop, killing one man and wounding 13. One of the wounded, 17-year-old Shalom Ahron Badani, died Friday of his injuries.
Hamas, the main rival of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has been trying to harness the growing frustration among Palestinians, calling Friday for a “popular uprising” across the Palestinian territories in defence of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Abbas’ security forces broke up Hamas-led protests of several hundred people in the West Bank’s two largest cities, Hebron and Nablus, witnesses said. Aides have said Abbas is concerned that Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip from him in 2007, is trying to foment unrest to weaken his grip on areas of the West Bank that are under self-rule.
Israeli forces, meanwhile, clamped down on protests in two areas under their control, the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem and the Qalandiya checkpoint on the outskirts of the city. At Qalandiya, police fired tear gas at Palestinian stone-throwers.
Ahead of noon prayers Friday at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, about 1,300 police were deployed in and around the Old City. They 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 gave only his first name, Raed, for fear of Israeli repercussions. “We pray here despite the Israeli restraints.”
Police spokeswoman Luba Samri denied that police were favouring one religion over another and rejected Palestinian claims that the heavy police presence near the shrine was contributing to tensions.
“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.”
The recent escalation in Jerusalem also set off an intense debate in Israel.
Centre-left politicians have accused ultra-nationalists of recklessly provoking Muslims with talk of changing the status quo, and warned that violence in Jerusalem could quickly spin out of control. In the past, confrontations at the holy site have triggered major rounds of fighting.
Rabbinical opinion is also divided. Many ultra-Orthodox rabbis oppose prayer by Jews at the site under the current conditions on religious grounds. Some nationalist clerics have been encouraging attempts to pray there.
On Friday, Israel’s chief Sephardic 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,” Yitzhak Yosef said at the funeral of the 17-year-old who was killed in Wednesday’s minivan attack. “I issue a call to end this so that the blood of the people of Israel will flow no more.”