Nov 14, 2014 5:22 AM

Israel lifts Muslim age limits for Jerusalem site

The Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) A Jerusalem holy site at the heart of recent tensions between Israelis and Palestinians was quiet on Friday, police said, after age restrictions for Muslim men who wanted to pray there were lifted for the first time in weeks, but minor clashes with Palestinian protesters continued in the West Bank.

Police have said age restrictions banning Muslim men under the age of 35 are occasionally imposed on the holy site in an attempt to reduce violence that often involves young Palestinians throwing rocks and firecrackers in protests held at the compound which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.

Palestinians have protested against age limitations in the past. It's not clear if the calm Friday was due to the lifting of the restrictions a possible confidence building measure or the result of diplomatic progress the night before.

The development came a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Jordan's King Abdullah II in an attempt to restore calm in the holy city that has seen months of tension and violent confrontations.

The Imam of the compound's Al-Aqsa Mosque, Ekrima Sabri, said "no instructions" were given for the calm Friday. "Police treated the worshippers peacefully so they were peaceful," he said.

Azzam Khatib, director general of the, Waqf, Jordan's Islamic authority which manages the site, said "40,000 worshippers came today peacefully and prayed and left the mosque quietly. We hope it's a new page. We will monitor the Israeli performance in the coming days and weeks."

Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said the site was open to Muslims of all ages for weekly prayers and there were no immediate reports of violence.

In recent weeks, Palestinians have clashed with police at the holy site, sometimes in response to visits by Jewish worshippers. The visits have stoked fears and allegations among the Palestinians that Israel intends to alter decades-old arrangements regarding access to the site, something Israel adamantly denies.

U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki hailed Friday's lifting of the age restrictions as a much-needed good-faith gesture to help calm down the situation.

"This is an important development. It's one we certainly welcome. And a positive step toward maintaining the status quo of the site," Psaki told reporters in Washington. "Now, the situation is still very tense. We have our eyes open. We will remain engaged and in touch with the leaders, and of course, actions by the parties going forward are the key to restoring and maintaining calm."

Samri said police are investigating claims that an 11-year-old Palestinian boy was seriously wounded during a protest on Thursday in east Jerusalem.

Samer Mahmoud said his son Saleh was struck in the face by a rubber bullet that fractured his skull.

He said his son is being treated at Israel's Hadassah hospital and is still in the intensive care unit. "The doctors at Hadassah told me there is no hope for him to see in his right eye," he said. The boy's vision in his left eye is also likely to be weakened, Mahmoud said.

Kerry said after Thursday's meeting that Israel and Jordan have committed to a series of "specific and practical" steps to reduce spiraling tensions in Jerusalem and that the Palestinians have pledged to curb incitement and violence, without offering further details.

Long-simmering animosity has boiled over into violent Palestinian protests and attacks that have killed six people, including a baby, and injured more than a dozen others.

Much of the violence stems from tensions surrounding the Jerusalem holy site referred to by Jews as the Temple Mount because of the Jewish temples that stood there in biblical times. It is the most sacred place in Judaism; Muslims refer to it as the Noble Sanctuary, and it is their third holiest site, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

The site is so holy that Jews have traditionally refrained from going there instead praying at the adjacent Western Wall. Israel's chief rabbis have urged people not to ascend to the area, arguing that the temple's former location on the mount is unclear and Jews could inadvertently enter the holiest area of the once-standing temple, where it was forbidden to tread.

But in recent years, a small but growing number of Jews, including ultranationalist lawmakers, have begun regularly visiting the site.

Israel has accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of fueling tensions in Jerusalem. Abbas accused Netanyahu this week of leading the region into a "religious war." Netanyahu responded by calling Abbas a liar and accusing him of incitement.

Abbas recently called for Jews to be banned from the Jerusalem holy site, urging Palestinians to guard the compound against visiting Jews.

Muslim authorities reporting to Jordan have continued to administer the site since east Jerusalem's capture by Israel in 1967. Jews are allowed to visit, but may not pray there. Muslim worshippers view Jewish prayer at the site as a provocation, and Israeli authorities place tough restrictions on it.

Netanyahu has insisted that Israel has no plans to change the arrangements at the holy site.

Israeli police said they dispersed about 100 Palestinians who blocked a road near Jerusalem.

Palestinians also clashed with Israeli forces at Qalandia in the West Bank after Muslim prayers, throwing rocks at police and burning tires. Local media reported that Palestinians had broken through a section of Israel's security barrier. Police said they are investigating.


Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.


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