After easing prayer restrictions, police brace for possible clashes

Authorities announce lifting of age limit at al-Aqsa Mosque after Netanyahu, King Abdullah agree on ‘confidence-building steps’

Israeli security forces walk near Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, November 5, 2014. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)
Israeli security forces walk near Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, November 5, 2014. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

The Israel Police were preparing for possible flare-ups of violence on the Temple Mount Friday morning amid heightened tension between Israel and the Palestinians over the holy site, and following the announcement of confidence-building steps to return calm to the region.

Police announced late Thursday evening that there would be no age restrictions on Muslim worshipers for weekly prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque Friday, for the first time in weeks.

The decision followed a trilateral meeting in Amman on Thursday between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and US Secretary of State John Kerry, after which the top American diplomat said steps had been agreed upon to lower tensions between Israel and the Palestinians over Jerusalem’s contested holy site.

It was not immediately clear if the eased restriction on Temple Mount prayer was one such step.

“Firm commitments” were made to maintain the status quo at the compound, Kerry said at a press conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was not in attendance, but met with Kerry beforehand. Kerry said it was “not the right moment” for Abbas and Netanyahu to meet.

Israel and Jordan, which has custodial rights at the compound, also agreed to take steps to “deescalate the situation” in Jerusalem and to “restore confidence,” Kerry added. “We are not going to lay out each practical step; it is more important they be done in a quiet and effective way.”

Judeh said Amman would review its decision to recall its envoy to Israel, based on Jerusalem’s implementation of its commitments to restore calm.

“Recalling our ambassador for consultation was a very clear signal that something has to be done to check these actions that are causing great concern,” Judeh explained. “With intensive diplomacy, we have seen a commitment on the part of Israel to respect and maintain the status quo and respect the Jordanian custodianship (of the holy sites). We have to wait and see if this is done.”

Restrictions on male worshipers have been imposed on recent Fridays. The police have, on occasion, barred access to the site to Palestinian men under 35 years of age, fearing unrest and riots. There have been times the restrictions have included all men under 50. Females of all ages have been allowed access to the site.

On Thursday evening, an 11-year-old Palestinian boy was reportedly seriously hurt during a demonstration in East Jerusalem’s Issawiya neighborhood after he was struck in the face by a sponge bullet fired by Israeli riot police. Rioting was also reported in the Abu Dis neighborhood. South of Jerusalem, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at soldiers, but caused no injuries.

Earlier, security forces raided the East Jerusalem home of Mu’taz Hijazi, the gunman who attempted to assassinate right-wing activist Yehudah Glick on October 29 and was later killed by police during a shootout. Israel Radio reported that police confiscated a computer and cellphones from Hijazi’s home as part of an investigation.

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said Thursday that unrest in Israel and the West Bank was likely to continue, albeit at a lower simmer.

Aharonovitch said recent days had seen a drop in rioting, attributing the improvement to decisive action by police against violent protesters. But he warned that fresh attacks by so-called lone-wolf terrorists, acting impulsively without instruction from terror organizations, remained possible.

“We are seeing a period of grassroots terrorism,” continued Aharonovitch. “I assess that there will continue to be attacks and incidents in the upcoming period.”

On Wednesday night, police in the West Bank arrested a Palestinian teen who was wielding a knife. The youth admitted he was headed to Jerusalem to stab a bus driver.

Israel has deployed hundreds of police reinforcements to the capital in recent weeks in response to the unrest in East Jerusalem, which has also spread to the West Bank and Arab communities across Israel, raising fears of a new Palestinian uprising.

The Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the al-Aqsa compound, is the holiest site in Judaism, and the third-holiest in Islam. It has been a source of increased tensions between Israelis and Palestinians: A number of violent clashes between security forces and Palestinian demonstrators, four terror attacks, and an attempted assassination of a Temple Mount activist have taken place in just under a month.

Police closed the holy site to all visitors for a day last month after a prominent Temple Mount activist was shot and critically wounded in Jerusalem by a Palestinian suspect.

AFP and AP contributed to this report. 

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