Weekly Muslim prayers at Jerusalem’s flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque went off without incident Friday despite high tensions in the Holy City, but stone-throwing Palestinians rioted in the West Bank city of Hebron.
After Israeli authorities dropped aged restrictions for attending Friday prayers for the second week running, tens of thousands of people made their way to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in occupied Arab east Jerusalem.
Police were out in force to prevent a repeat of clashes, led by young Palestinians, that have rocked the city for months.
“The police are on stand-by in different areas to respond if necessary to any disturbances… There are extra units in and around the Old City,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP.
Men and women of all ages shuffled into the compound, holy to both Jews and Muslims, as police carefully checked the identity cards of younger worshippers.
Clashes at the site are usually led by younger Palestinian men. Earlier this month, some of them hurled rocks and firecrackers at police, who entered the compound and the Al-Aqsa mosque itself.
The Palestinians have been infuriated by a far-right Jewish campaign for prayer rights at the compound that threatens an ultra-sensitive, decades-old status quo under which Jews can visit but not pray.
Police had tried to preempt unrest by limiting male entry to those over 35.
But Israel eased the restrictions last week after US Secretary of State John Kerry announced an agreement on steps to reduce tensions.
Wasel Qassem, 35, said lifting the age bar might gradually help calm tempers.
“Restrictions were the main cause” of tension, said the radiotherapist, who was able to pray at the site for the first time in several weeks.
“Al-Aqsa is an obvious cause for another intifada,” or uprising, he said, adding that a spate of Palestinian attacks in Jerusalem was perceived as “revenge or defence” of the compound.
The compound, known in Arabic as Al-Haram Al-Sharif, is the third-holiest place in Islam. It is the holiest site for Jews, who call it Temple Mount.
While Israel controls entry to the site in the heart of the Old City, Jerusalem’s Muslim authorities administer it, while Jordan acts as custodian.
Israel is struggling to contain a spike in unrest in east Jerusalem that has seen a growing number of deadly attacks by Palestinians.
On Tuesday, two Palestinians killed five people at a synagogue in west Jerusalem — far from Al-Aqsa and flashpoint eastern neighbourhoods –before being shot dead.
The city’s bloodiest attack in years, it followed a spate of “lone-wolf” attacks, including two incidents in which Palestinians ploughed cars into pedestrians, killing four people.
Despite the lifting of restrictions, resentment simmered under the surface Friday.
“The age limitations are only lifted because it’s to their (Israel’s) benefit,” said 23-year-old Amir, an engineer who had come from Ramallah in the West Bank to pray for the first time since June.
“People are afraid of coming. The situation here is very risky.”
Fellow worshipper Bilal underlined the importance of the site for Muslims, attributing months of tension to perceived Jewish attempts to take it over.
“Al-Aqsa is very important. A lot of people would die for it,” he said.
But with the lifting of age restriction appearing to have calmed tensions around the site last week, there were none of the habitual clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli police Friday.
However, in the southern West Bank city of Hebron hundreds of Palestinians heeded a call from Islamist group Hamas for a “day of rage” in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
A military spokeswoman said “350 rioters threw stones outside a mosque” and “were being dispersed by non-lethal means.”
She said no arrests were made. SAPA