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Nov 6, 2014 4:23 PM

Israel tries to soothe tensions over Jerusalem

The Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) In an attempt at diplomatic damage control, Israel's prime minister reassured Jordan's king Thursday that he won't yield to increasing demands by some members of his center-right coalition to allow Jews to pray at a Muslim-run holy site in Jerusalem.

The phone call between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah II came a day after riot police clashed with Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third- holiest shrine. Jordan, which is the custodian of the site, recalled its ambassador in protest.

Israeli-Palestinian confrontations have been escalating in Jerusalem, including near-daily clashes between stone-throwing Palestinians and Israeli riot police. Some of the attacks have turned deadly in recent weeks.

Underlying the tensions is long-running frustration among the city's 300,000 Palestinians with what many of them view as oppressive Israeli practices, such as restrictions on building, and a separation wall that cuts through Arab neighborhoods.

The unrest was triggered by Muslim fears of Jewish encroachment at the sacred site, a hilltop plateau known to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as the Temple Mount. The complex houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the gold-topped Dome of the Rock. Jews also revere it as the location of their biblical temples and the most important site in Judaism.

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

In recent months, however, several senior members of Netanyahu's coalition, including Housing Minister Uri Ariel and Deputy Parliament Speaker Moshe Feiglin, have called for a greater Jewish presence and the right to prayer on the mount. At the same time, the number of Jewish visitors to the site has increased over the years, raising fears among Muslims that this is part of a gradual takeover.

Such visits have heightened tensions at the site, including stone-throwing clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police who have fired tear gas and stun grenades in the plaza around the mosques.

Confrontations, in turn, often lead to access restrictions for Muslims. Police routinely prevent younger Muslim men from praying at Al-Aqsa during such periods, especially on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath, further heightening resentment.

On Friday, men under the age of 35 are to be barred, and police expect to deploy large numbers of additional forces around the shrine, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. In the past, age restrictions were more severe, barring those younger than 50.

Jordan has expressed alarm over the developments at the mosque compound and suggested the tensions could hurt ties with Israel. The two countries have had a peace agreement for 20 years.

In the phone conversation with Jordan's king, 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 at the holy site "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 concerns that unrest in east Jerusalem could explode into wider violence.

Jordan recalled its ambassador after a clash Wednesday morning at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Palestinians had barricaded themselves inside the mosque ahead of a scheduled visit by a Jewish group.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said both sides can do more "to make clear that these events are unacceptable, that there's a desire to reduce tensions." She added that Secretary of State John Kerry has been holding high-level conversations encouraging such actions.

Azzam Khatib, a senior Muslim official at the site, said Muslim leaders had urged Israel not to allow non-Muslims to visit because of the tense situation. Instead, he said about 300 Israeli police entered the area early in the morning, sparking the clashes.

Video showed helmeted police with shields tearing down a makeshift barricade at the entrance to the mosque while rocks and firecrackers were thrown at them.

Khatib said troops entered the mosque and threw stun grenades, burning some holes in the carpet.

"What happened was unprecedented," he said, adding that Israeli police "went deep inside (the mosque) wearing their shoes and almost reached the altar inside."

Israeli police spokeswoman Luba Samri denied that security forces fired stun grenades or that the mosque carpet was damaged. She said police dismantled the barricade and retreated.

Shortly after the clash, a Palestinian motorist rammed his van into a crowd waiting for a train in Jerusalem, killing the policeman and wounding more than a dozen others. It was the second such attack in two weeks. The attacker was shot and killed by police.

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. The driver's claim that he didn't intend to hit the soldiers is being checked, according to media reports

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.


Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this story.


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