Israeli police clash with Palestinian protesters at volatile Jerusalem holy site

By Matti Friedman, AP
Sunday, February 28, 2010

Israeli police, Palestinians clash at holy site

JERUSALEM — Israeli riot police dispersed a crowd of masked Palestinian youths throwing stones in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City on Sunday, in a violent reminder of tensions at the holiest site in the contested city.

In the past, even seemingly minor incidents at the hilltop compound — known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary — have ignited clashes and protests throughout the region. The Palestinian president condemned what he called an Israeli “attack” against an Islamic holy site.

Micky Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesman, said police dispersed some 20 masked protesters who had holed up overnight in the compound’s Al-Aqsa mosque and then pelted visiting tourists with objects early Sunday.

The policemen quickly restored calm and tourists were allowed to continue visiting the compound, one of Jerusalem’s main tourist sites, Rosenfeld said. But sporadic clashes between small groups of masked Palestinians and police continued in the Old City’s back alleyways, where youths with T-shirts wrapped around their faces hurled stones at policemen protected by a wall of plexiglass shields. No serious injuries were reported.

The holy compound has been under Israeli security control since the 1967 Mideast war, but Israel has left its day-to-day management in the hands of an Islamic administration known as the Waqf and prevents Jews from praying there.

As in similar incidents in the past, Sunday’s protests appeared to have erupted because of rumors that Jewish extremists planned to enter the holy compound, according to the Waqf’s director, Abdul Azim Samhadana. He blamed Israeli police for “provoking” the youths.

With peace talks stalled for over a year, tensions have risen further since the Israeli government’s recent decision to add two West Bank shrines to a list of national heritage sites. The move appears to have few practical implications, but Palestinians — along with the U.S. and some European countries — have denounced it as a provocation.

Speaking in Amman, Jordan, on Sunday, President Mahmoud Abbas said the decision on the West Bank shrines and Sunday’s incident hinted at an Israeli attempt to “spark a religious war in the region.”

“What is required from the international community is to stop Israel, and what is required from America itself is not just to condemn but to demand that Israel stop these attacks on the holy places,” Abbas said in comments released by the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.

Abbas has refused to restart peace talks without a full freeze of Israeli settlement construction. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has scaled back construction and said he supports the creation of a Palestinian state, but has not agreed to a complete freeze.

Conflicting claims to the hilltop compound in Jerusalem lie at the heart of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Jews revere it as the site of the two biblical Temples and the center of their faith. For Muslims, the compound — home to the Al-Aqsa mosque and the gold-capped Dome of the Rock — is Islam’s third-holiest site, the scene of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascent to heaven in a story recounted in the Quran.

A 2000 visit by Ariel Sharon, then an Israeli opposition leader and later prime minister, helped ignite deadly clashes that engulfed Israel and the Palestinian territories for years.

Israel’s government sees all of Jerusalem, including the Old City, as its indivisible capital. Palestinians see east Jerusalem, including the Old City, as the capital of a future state.

Taleb Abu Shaar, an official from the Islamic group Hamas that rules the Gaza Strip, called on Palestinians to rise up violently against Israel and “protect our Islamic holy places from the risk of Judaization.”


Associated Press Writers Diaa Hadid and Dalia Nammari contributed to this report.

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