Israel Eases Al Aqsa Curbs; Settlers Set West Bank Mosque Ablaze


Palestinians walk outside the West Bank that was torched by Israelis on Wesneday. AFP/Getty Images
Palestinians stand outside a mosque that was set ablaze by Israeli settlers in al-Mughayir in the West Bank near the Jewish settlement of Shilo on November 12, Wednesday. AFP/Abbas Momani

By Steve Weizman

JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israel eased restrictions at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque on Friday after US Secretary of State John Kerry announced an agreement on steps to reduce tensions at the flashpoint compound. 
The site, holy to both Jews and Muslims, has been the focus of months of unrest in annexed Arab east Jerusalem, that has spread to the occupied West Bank and Arab communities across Israel, raising fears of a new Palestinian uprising.

The Palestinians have been infuriated by a far-right Jewish campaign for prayer rights at Al-Aqsa that threatens an ultra-sensitive, decades-old status quo.

The violence prompted Kerry to hold a flurry of meetings with the two sides in neighboring Jordan on Thursday, after which he announced unspecified confidence-building measures.

Men of all ages were allowed entry for the main weekly Muslim prayers at Al-Aqsa for the first time in “months”, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP.

“It’s been four months that I haven’t been able to pray at Al-Aqsa on Friday, even during the holy month of Ramadan,” Amir, 18, from east Jerusalem’s volatile Silwan neighborhood told AFP.

Palestinian worshippers walk outside the Dome of the Rock at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound after Friday prayers in the Old City of Jerusalem, on November 14, 2014 (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)
Palestinian worshipers walk outside the Dome of the Rock at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound after Friday prayers in the Old City of Jerusalem, on November 14, 2014 (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

Police said 40,000 worshipers attended the prayers, which passed off without incident.

Rosenfeld linked the decision to lift age restrictions to Kerry’s talks in Jordan with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah II.

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

‘Quiet and effective’ 

Israel and Jordan, which has custodial rights at the compound, also agreed to take steps to “de-escalate the situation” in Jerusalem and to “restore confidence”.

“We are not going to lay out each practical step. It is more important they be done in a quiet and effective way,” Kerry said.

“It is clear to me that they are serious about working on the effort to create de-escalation and to take steps to instil confidence that the status quo will be upheld.”

Kerry met separately in Amman with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who he said also committed to help calm emotions.

“President Abbas and I… discussed constructive steps, real steps — not rhetoric but real steps that people can take — in order to de-escalate the situation and create a climate where we can move forward in a positive and constructive way,” Kerry said.

“President Abbas strongly restated his firm commitment to nonviolence, and he made it clear that he will do everything possible to restore calm and to prevent the incitement of violence and to try to change the climate.”

Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli security …

Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli security forces near the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is also due in the Palestinian territories and Israel from Saturday for talks with leaders on both sides, a spokesman in Berlin said Friday.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said his government has no plans to change the status quo at the compound which allows Jews to visit but not pray.

Expansion of settlements

But his reassurances have failed to calm Palestinian anger that has also been fueled by his government’s vigorous expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

A preacher at Al-Aqsa on Friday denounced “Israeli aggression” in his sermon piped over loudspeakers.

Part of the Israeli separation barrier divides a hill …
Part of the Israeli separation barrier divides a hill between an Arab neighbourhood of east Jerusalem

Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said on Wednesday he would order the installation of metal detectors at the entrances to the compound along with facial-recognition technology.

Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Islamic Waqf which runs the compound, rejected the idea.

An Israeli human rights group on Friday accused the police and paramilitary border police of “serious irregularities” in dispersing Palestinian protests in east Jerusalem.

An 11-year-old Palestinian boy was wounded in the Issawiya neighborhood on Thursday when a so-called sponge round hit him between the eyes during clashes, medics said.

“Regulations stipulate that foam-tipped bullets must only be aimed at the lower body,” the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said.

“Yet the testimonies we have received… indicate that police forces operating in east Jerusalem have fired at, and hit the faces of, residents and journalists,” it added.

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