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Israel, Palestinians brace for more unrest at holy site

AFP , Thursday 20 Jul 2017
Palestinian women walk past Israeli police officers near the entrance to the compound housing al-Aqsa mosque, known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary, in Jerusalem's Old City July 20, 2017 (Photo: Reuters)

Israel's army boosted security Thursday and braced for possible unrest on the eve of the main weekly Muslim prayers after security measures imposed at a sensitive Jerusalem site angered Palestinians.

Officials were reportedly in talks to defuse the crisis, which followed a deadly attack on police last Friday near the site that includes the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

As tensions mounted on Thursday evening, 22 Palestinians were wounded in clashes with Israeli security forces, two of them seriously after being hit by rubber bullets, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

An Israeli police spokesman said officers had responded after Palestinians leaving prayers pelted the security forces with stones and bottles at the Old City's Lion Gate.

The controversy over the clampdown including the use of metal detectors at entrances to the Haram al-Sharif compound has also resonated beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged his Israeli counterpart Reuven Rivlin to swiftly remove the detectors "within the framework of freedom of religion and worship".

"Given the importance that Haram al-Sharif carries for the whole Islamic world, the metal detectors put in place by Israel should be removed in the shortest possible time and an end put to the tension," said Erdogan.

Rivlin told Erdogan that "the steps taken on the Temple Mount were intended to ensure that such acts of terror could not be repeated," according to the Israeli presidency.

Their remarks came after Erdogan spoke on the phone to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

In the Gaza Strip, Islamist movement Hamas, Abbas's rivals, called for a day of "rage" on Friday.

The United States and United Nations expressed concern, with the White House calling on Israel and Jordan, the holy site's custodian, to work toward a solution.

The new security measures were put in place following the gun and knife attack on Friday last week near the site that killed two Israeli policemen.

Three Arab Israeli assailants fled to the compound after the attack, where they were shot dead by security forces.

Israel initially closed the site for two days following the attack in a highly unusual move, shutting it for last Friday's prayers.

It said the closure was necessary for security checks, adding the three attackers had come from the direction of the site.

Israel began reopening it on Sunday, but with metal detectors in place to prevent the smuggling of weapons into the compound.

The move angered Palestinians and Muslims who saw it as Israel asserting further control over the site.

Palestinians have been refusing to enter the compound since then.

Hundreds have been holding prayers outside the site, with clashes occasionally breaking out with Israeli police.

The weekly Friday prayers draw the largest number of participants, and speculation has intensified over whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will order the removal of the metal detectors.

The army said it was leaving five extra battalions on alert, including in the occupied West Bank.

It would decide whether to keep them deployed for the entire weekend.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told army radio that Netanyahu would decide on the policy for the site but he "hoped" the detectors would remain in place for the weekend.

Members of Netanyahu's right-wing coalition have been pressuring him to leave the detectors in place and "ensure security" at the site.

"Caving in to Palestinian pressure now will hurt Israel's deterrence and risk the lives of visitors, worshippers and law enforcement officials on Temple Mount," said Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the far-right Jewish Home.

Israel was taking other precautions to avoid further increasing tensions.

Members of the Israeli parliament were informed by Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein they were still not permitted to visit the site, as has been the case since October 2015.

Yehuda Glick, a lawmaker from Netanyahu's Likud party, had in March petitioned the Supreme Court against the ban, and in response the justice ministry said this month the state would allow a five-day pilot to see whether the ban could be relaxed.

The trial was set to begin on Sunday, and Edelstein's letter to the lawmakers was understood as meaning it would be delayed.

The compound is the third-holiest in Islam, and it is central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is located in the occupied east Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in 1967 and later annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.

Jews are allowed to visit the compound but not pray there to avoid provoking tensions.

Netanyahu has stressed in recent days that he remains committed to the current rules.

*This story was edited by Ahram Online.

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