Israel eases Al-Aqsa limits as 90 wounded in Gaza, West Bank

Jerusalem (AFP) - Israel lifted age limits for prayers at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound Friday in an apparent bid to ease tensions as nearly 90 people were injured in clashes in Gaza and the West Bank.

While thousands of Muslims prayed without incident at the ultra-sensitive site, young Palestinians clashed with Israeli police in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, leaving scores injured by Israeli gunfire, according to emergency services.

The international community has scrambled to defuse a wave of violence that many fear heralds a third Palestinian intifada, or uprising, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it was time for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to meet face to face.

"There is no substitute to direct talks," he said after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

US Secretary of State John Kerry held long talks with Netanyahu in Berlin on Thursday, voicing hope that "we can seize this moment and pull back from the precipice".

The top American diplomat is due to hold talks with Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah II at a meeting in Amman on Saturday.

Kerry, his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Ban -- members of the Middle East peacemaking Quartet -- met on Friday in Vienna and issued a call for Israel to work with Jordan, historic steward of the Al-Aqsa compound.

A Quartet statement said it "encourages Israel to work together with Jordan to uphold the status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem in both word and practice."

It also called for "maximum restraint and avoidance of provocative rhetoric and actions."

The appeals came as tensions showed little sign of easing, with Palestinian movements holding a "day of rage" Friday against Israel.

Youths lobbed stones at Israeli police who responded with tear gas and gunfire at checkpoints in the occupied West Bank, where 20 Palestinians sustained gunshot wounds.

- 'Still no respect' -

According to emergency services, 65 people, including three journalists, were hit by Israeli fire in the blockaded Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army said an Israeli woman and her two young daughters were injured in the West Bank when her car was hit with a Molotov cocktail.

The latest wave of violence erupted over the status of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, a site sacred to both Jews and Muslims that has long been a crucible for tensions fuelling the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Jordanian-run Islamic Waqf, which administers Al-Aqsa, said 25,000 Muslims attended Friday prayers after age restrictions were lifted for the first time since mid-September, when Palestinians and Israeli police clashed.

Israeli police estimated the crowd Friday at 30,000.

"Of course it is better but there are still checkpoints and searches. There is still no respect," said worshipper Wissam Abu Madi, 20, who said he believed a wave of attacks on Israelis would continue.

Clashes erupted during Jewish religious holidays last month as an increase in visits by Jews to the compound raised fears among Muslims that Israel was planning to change longstanding rules governing the site.

To avoid tensions Jews are allowed to visit but not pray at the site located in east Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel in 1967.

It is managed by the Jordanian-run Waqf but Israel controls access.

The protests at Al-Aqsa triggered a wave of lone-wolf knife attacks, shootings and car-rammings against Israelis.

In the latest attack Friday a Palestinian stabbed and lightly wounded a soldier in the occupied West Bank before being shot and wounded by Israeli forces.

- 'There is no work' -

Since October 1, at least 50 Palestinians and one Israeli Arab have died in clashes with Israeli police or while carrying out attacks.

Eight Israelis have been killed in attacks.

One Israeli Jew and one Eritrean have also been killed after being mistaken for attackers.

Netanyahu has repeatedly accused Abbas of fanning the flames by suggesting Israel wants to change the status quo at the compound.

The Israeli leader insists he has no intention of changing the rules.

The recent unrest is led by a new generation of young Palestinians frustrated with life under Israeli occupation and a stalemate in peace efforts, who no longer see their leaders as capable of improving their lot.

Mohammed, 29, who was attending prayers at Al-Aqsa, laid the blame on the Israelis.

"They are responsible because there is no work. If there was work, if people had money, they wouldn't do anything."