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Israel Blocks Access to Contested Holy Site in Jerusalem

Israeli police officers arrested a right-wing activist on Thursday after he tried to access the sacred plateau revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary in the Old City of Jerusalem.
By ISABEL KERSHNER and JODI RUDOREN
October 30, 2014

JERUSALEM — Under heavy pressure and the threat of new Israeli-Palestinian strife, Israel announced on Thursday that it would reopen a contested holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem on Friday morning, a day after closing it for the first time in years.

The site, which Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims the Noble Sanctuary, has become an increasingly combustible flash point in the underlying Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The decision to close the site, a step that a Palestinian spokesman had denounced as “a declaration of war,” came after Israeli forces shot and killed a Palestinian man suspected of involvement in an assassination attempt on a leading agitator for more Jewish access to the site. The closing prevented Muslims from worshiping at Al Aksa mosque, one of the three holiest sites in Islam.

Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli police, said the site would be “fully functional and back to normal” on Friday. But he said that men under the age of 50 would not be allowed to enter — a restriction that has often been imposed recently to ward off clashes around the noon prayer. He said police officers would be out in force in the Old City “to make sure that there are no incidents.”

Map | Contested Holy SiteSacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City has long been a flash point in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The police initially indicated that the site would reopen Thursday evening, but then said that information was incorrect.

The site has been the scene of ferocious clashes between Muslim worshipers and protesters and the Israeli police. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, has accused Israel of trying to change the status quo at the site to allow open Jewish prayer there, something Israeli and Palestinian analysts alike have warned could set off a major conflagration.

The closing had regional repercussions, particularly for Israel’s relationship with Jordan, which both sides see as vital in fighting Islamic extremism. Under a decades-old agreement with Israel, Jordan is ultimately responsible for Jerusalem’s Islamic holy sites, though Israel controls security at them. Jordan’s minister of Islamic affairs, Hayel Daoud, said on Thursday that the closing was “a serious escalation and ‘state terrorism’ by the Israeli authorities.”

Israel has increasingly restricted access to the site on certain days, barring young Muslim men or non-Muslim visitors, citing concerns over clashes. Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, said that the action on Thursday was the first complete closing of the site since 2000, when a visit by Ariel Sharon — who was then the leader of the opposition in Parliament — helped set off the second Palestinian intifada.

Video | Conflict Grows Over Temple MountIn 2013, The Times reported on mainstream Jews seeking to enter and pray at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, one of the most contested religious sites in the world, which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary.

Samir Abu al-Leil of the Islamic Waqf, the trust that has managed Al Aksa and other Muslim holy sites for centuries, said the area had not been fully closed since 1967.

In a statement, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, quoted Mr. Abbas as describing the Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem as “a red line” where there could be no compromise. Israel’s decision was a “grave act” that would “add to the tensions and instability and create a dangerous atmosphere,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has insisted that he will not alter the status quo at the site, which Israel seized along with the rest of the Old City in 1967 but immediately handed back to the Islamic authorities.

On Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu condemned the shooting of the Jewish activist, Yehuda Glick, as “an act of terrorism,” and accused Mr. Abbas of inciting violence. He pointed to a recent speech in which the Palestinian Authority president called on his people to defend the mosque compound from Jewish encroachment “by all means.”

Palestinians clashed with the Israeli border police on Thursday after a Palestinian man suspected of being involved in an assassination attempt against an Israeli-American activist was shot dead in East Jerusalem.

“I have ordered significant reinforcements, so that we can maintain both security in Jerusalem and the status quo in the holy places,” Mr. Netanyahu said after an emergency consultation with senior security officials. “This struggle might be long, and here, like in other struggles, we must first of all lower the flames. No side should take the law into its own hands. We must be levelheaded and act with determination and responsibility, and so we shall.”

Mr. Glick is a prominent Israeli-American activist who has frequently been arrested at the Temple Mount. Israeli counterterrorism forces said they killed the Palestinian man suspected of shooting Mr. Glick while they were attempting to arrest the man on Thursday.

Mr. Rosenfeld, the Israeli police spokesman, said the forces had surrounded a house in the Abu Tor neighborhood when shots were fired at the officers, who responded immediately.

The official Palestinian news agency, Wafa, identified the man who was killed as Mu’atez Hijazi, and said he was released in 2012 after spending 11 years in an Israeli prison. He was said to be in his early 30s.

A Palestinian woman gestured toward an Israeli police officer in the Old City of Jerusalem on Thursday.

Mr. Hijazi worked in the kitchen of the restaurant that operates in the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, where Mr. Glick was attending a convention on Jewish prayer rights at Temple Mount before he was shot. Staff members at the restaurant refused to comment. The owner told Israel Radio that he had followed all the required security procedures before hiring Mr. Hijazi about a year ago.

Hours after Mr. Hijazi was killed, residents and the police were clashing in Abu Tor, as the latest events brought months of tension in Jerusalem to a new peak.

Taghreed Hijazi, Mr. Hijazi’s aunt, said she heard a commotion outside her home early Thursday morning. When she looked out her kitchen window, she said, a police officer aimed a gun at her. “He ordered me to shut the window and get inside,” she said.

Ms. Hijazi said she saw a group of police officers dragging Mr. Hijazi’s brother Odai into the courtyard. Some officers went up to the rooftop, where Mr. Hijazi was later found dead, and others raided his room, she said. Solar panels on the roof were punctured with more than two dozen bullet holes.

Mr. Hijazi’s sister Shayma, 25, accused the police of killing him “in cold blood.”

A spokeswoman for the Shaare Zedek Medical Center, the Jerusalem hospital where Mr. Glick was taken, said on Thursday that he had suffered four gunshot wounds to the chest, neck, stomach and arm and that his condition was stable but still very serious. Witnesses to the shooting said a lone assailant had fled the scene on a motorcycle.

Under an arrangement in place for decades, Jews are not allowed to worship atop the mount, only in the Western Wall plaza below. Ultranationalist Jewish activists and groups, often led by Mr. Glick, have made a point of visiting the mount more frequently in recent years and have been campaigning for Jewish prayer rights on the mount, where ancient Jewish temples once stood.

More than 8,500 Jews visited the mount last year, compared with fewer than 6,000 in 2010, according to the Israeli police. Mr. Rosenfeld did not respond to requests for information on Jewish visits this year, but Ir Amim, a left-wing group that tracks activity at the site, said the police had reported an increase of 20 percent.

At a Parliament committee meeting this week, the interior ministry reported that Israel had restricted Muslim access, usually barring men under 50, on 40 occasions this year, up from eight days in 2013, according to Aviv Tatarsky of Ir Amim, who was present at the meeting. Jews, whose access is always restricted to certain hours, have also been barred on various days, including during part of the recent holiday of Sukkot.

Mr. Abu al-Leil of the Islamic Waqf said the police stopped him on Thursday from entering the Aksa compound for the noon prayer, as he normally does, so he instead worshiped with others near an Old City gate.

“To prevent worshipers from praying is irrational policy, because it triggers violence and hatred,” he said in an interview. “It is very hard to accept this situation. The violence will erupt soon.”

Officially, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is ultimately responsible for Jerusalem’s Islamic holy sites. Jordan’s minister of Islamic Affairs, Hayel Daoud, said on Thursday that the closure was “a serious escalation and ‘state terrorism’ by the Israeli authorities.”

The statement followed a string of unusually harsh public criticism of Israeli actions in Jerusalem by Jordan’s king and other leaders. Equating “Zionist extremism” with “Islamic extremism,” King Abdullah told members of the Jordanian government on Monday that “if Jordan and other countries are fighting extremism within Islam, and the Israelis are slaughtering our children in Gaza and Jerusalem every five minutes, then we have a problem.”

Jordan’s ambassador to Israel, Walid Obeidat, said at an event in Tel Aviv on Sunday marking the 20th anniversary of Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel that the continued expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem or changes in the status quo at the mount “will ultimately imperil the treaty.”

Jawad Anani, a former Jordanian foreign minister and deputy prime minister, said in an interview on Thursday that “Jordanians feel the latest actions taken by Israel are directed against Jordan this time, not only against Palestinians.”

“Jordan is finding it hard to explain to its people that it is in its interest to maintain the peace treaty and defend it,” Mr. Anani said. “His Majesty is reflecting the anger domestically. If anything happens to Al Aqsa under his guardianship, there will be huge consequences inside and outside of Jordan, so there’s a lot of pressure.”

Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan, said the king was worried that the eruption of a third Palestinian intifada would send a new wave of Palestinians emigrating to Jordan, where millions of Palestinian refugees already live and where hundreds of thousands of people have fled from conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

“The Jerusalem issue is a big issue from the Jordanian point of view, but it’s not going to threaten” the peace treaty, Mr. Eran said. Noting that Israel and Jordan cooperate on security, share intelligence, and are negotiating important deals on water and gas, he said of the Jordanian side: “They will lose a lot if something happens to the agreement. There are real daily existential needs, and Jordan cannot turn a blind eye to those.”

As darkness fell in the Old City, about 50 Muslims spread small carpets near the Lion’s Gate to say the evening prayer, surrounded by about two dozen Israeli police officers in helmets. A young imam with a long black beard read two verses from the Quran — one that called for fighting, and one about the acceptance of other religions.

“God protect our Aksa,” the imam said. “Amen,” the worshipers responded.

Said Ghazali contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Rana F. Sweis from Amman, Jordan.

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(via NY Times)