Clashes at Jerusalem holy site for third straight day

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s prime minister vowed tougher measures to curb Palestinian violence at an emergency meeting Tuesday night after police clashed with Palestinian protesters in a third straight day of unrest at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site during the Jewish new year holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel “will use all necessary measures to fight against those who throw stones, firebombs, pipe bombs and fireworks in order to attack civilians and police. On the eve of the holiday it was again proven that throwing stones can kill.” He said he will take steps so that attackers will face tougher punishment.

On Monday an Israel died after Palestinians pelted his car with rocks. And several Israeli civilians and police were injured in various attacks by Palestinians this week.

Netanyahu said Israel is committed to ensuring the status quo at the holy site but that “rioters won’t be allowed to stop Jewish visitors” to the hilltop.

Police entered the Al-Aqsa mosque compound early in the morning to disperse a group of protesters who had holed up inside the mosque overnight, said police spokeswoman Luba Samri. The protesters threw rocks, fireworks, concrete blocks and a firebomb at the officers, she said, adding that two Palestinians were arrested and five police officers were slightly injured in the violence.

A firebomb thrown at police from within the mosque ignited a rug and wooden planks piled up by the protesters, Samri said. Mosque officials later extinguished the fire and the police managed to restore calm and open the site for visitors, she added.

Azzam Khatib, the director of the Waqf — the Islamic religious authority that oversees the compound — said Israeli police entered deep inside the mosque in what he called “a very dangerous development.” Police denied the allegation and said officers only removed the barricade that protesters had set up at the entrance.

The director of Al-Aqsa Mosque, Omar Kiswani, blamed Israeli police for the tensions and said the gate used for visitors to access the site should be shut. He did not comment on the protesters’ alleged use of firebombs from within the sacred place, the third holiest site in Islam. Police have said that firecrackers and firebombs thrown from within the mosque have caused fires.

Nearby, more Palestinian protesters gathered and police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse them. Later, police said a Palestinian attacked two young Jews in Jerusalem’s Old City, then ran away. He was later arrested, police said.

Late Tuesday, three Palestinians were wounded in clashes between militants from the Islamic Jihad group and Palestinian security forces in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, doctors and security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity under regulations.

Palestinian police raided the camp after militants from Islamic Jihad opened fire during their own press conference, in anger over the incidents at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Palestinian police exchanged fire with the militants. One policeman and two bystanders were wounded in the shooting, according to witnesses who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The compound in Jerusalem’s Old City is a frequent flashpoint and its fate is a core issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, site of the two biblical Jewish temples. Muslims revere it as the Noble Sanctuary, where they believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Non-Muslim visitors are only allowed to enter the site at specific hours and are banned by police from praying there.

Muslims view these visits as a provocation and accuse Jewish extremists of plotting to take over the site. The compound often becomes the center of tensions on major Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashana, which ends Tuesday night.

The site is so holy for Jews that they traditionally have refrained from praying on the hilltop, congregating instead at the adjacent Western Wall.

Israel’s chief rabbis, as well as the rabbi of the Western Wall, have issued directives urging people not to ascend the Temple Mount, arguing that Jews could inadvertently enter the holiest area of the once-standing temple, where it was forbidden to tread.

But there is a movement advocating the rights for Jews to pray at the hilltop. Some try and get around the ban on prayers by secretly mumbling the words.

Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, blamed Israel for the unrest, claiming that Netanyahu “is trying to push us to the cycle of violence, extremism, bloodshed and chaos.”

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon rejected the allegations, adding that the recent skirmishes are “an attempt by Palestinians to change the status quo in a violent way.”

Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel, administers Muslim religious affairs at the site and Jordanian King Abdullah II warned Israel on Monday night to restore calm.

“Any more provocations in Jerusalem, will affect the relationship between Jordan and Israel; and Jordan will have no choice, but to take action, unfortunately,” he said.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat denounced “extremists who transform holy sites into places of terror.”

The current round of tensions at the site erupted Sunday morning hours ahead of the Jewish new year holiday. Police said clashes erupted after policemen entered the area to ensure security following reports that Palestinian protesters were planning to disrupt visits to the area and had stockpiled firecrackers and rocks.

Israel’s acting Police Chief Bentzi Sau said hundreds more officers were brought to Jerusalem to beef up police presence.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States “remains deeply concerned by the recent violence and escalating tensions” and called on all sides to exercise restraint “and preserve unchanged the historic status quo” at the holy site “both in word and in practice.”

The U.N.'s Mideast envoy Nikolay Mladenov warned that the clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in and around Jerusalem’s holy sites have the potential to ignite violence well beyond the walls of its old city, pointing to “a vicious tide of terror and extremism” in the region.

Mladenov urged all parties to refrain from “provocative actions and rhetoric” and called on political, community and religious leaders to ensure that visitors and worshippers “demonstrate restraint and respect for the sanctity of the area.”


Associated Press writers Nancy Benac in Washington, and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.