Israel police, Palestinians clash at flashpoint Jerusalem holy site

Clothilde Mraffko and Ahmad Gharabli
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The Al-Aqsa mosque compound is the scene of regular clashes between Palestinian worshippers and Israeli police

The Al-Aqsa mosque compound is the scene of regular clashes between Palestinian worshippers and Israeli police (AFP Photo/Ahmad GHARABLI)

Jerusalem (AFP) - Israeli security forces and Palestinian worshippers clashed at a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site Sunday as overlapping Jewish and Muslim holidays led to tensions there, wounding dozens of Palestinians and four police.

Separately on the Gaza border, a Palestinian shot at Israeli soldiers, who returned fire and killed him in the third such incident in recent days, the army said.

Hamas' health ministry confirmed the death of the Palestinian.

In Jerusalem, police fired sound grenades as Palestinian protests intensified at the highly sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, according to an AFP correspondent.

The Red Crescent reported 61 Palestinians wounded, 15 of whom were taken to hospitals.

Police said four officers were wounded as Palestinian protesters threw stones and other objects at security forces, who responded with what they called riot-dispersal means.

Seven people were arrested, police said.

Sunday marked the start of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday and thousands of Palestinians prayed at the Al-Aqsa mosque.

It coincided with the Jewish Tisha B'av holiday, which typically sees an increase in visits by Jewish religious nationalists to the holy site.

In a bid to ease tensions, police initially barred Jewish visits to the site on Sunday but Muslim worshippers still feared they would be allowed in and protested there. The clashes with police broke out afterwards.

- 'It's our mosque' -

After relative calm returned and following criticism from Israeli far-right politicians, police then opened the site to Jewish visits, sparking further clashes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he decided in advance "in consultation with all the security bodies" to allow Jewish entry.

"This year, as every year, Jews will go up to the Temple Mount on Tisha B'av, even when it is a Muslim holiday," he said in a Whatsapp video clip distributed to media.

"The question was not whether they would go up but how to manage it in the best way for public security and that is exactly what we did."

Palestinian worshippers blocked from entering after the clashes gathered outside and chanted "Allahu Akbar!" (God is greatest) and "With my soul and my blood, I will defend Al-Aqsa."

"It's our mosque, it's our Eid," said Assisa Abu Sneineh, 32, adding she was there when the clashes erupted.

"All of a sudden (security forces) arrived and began to hit and fire sound grenades."

Some 1,300 Jews visited the site on Sunday, according to the Muslim Waqf organisation, which administers the holy compound.

Jordan, the site's custodian and one of only two Arab countries with a peace treaty with Israel, condemned Israel's "continuous violations" there.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia called on the international community to "protect the Palestinian people from various Israeli aggressive practices".

Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi denounced Israel's response as "an act of recklessness and aggression."

Yehuda Glick, a former Israeli parliament member and a prominent campaigner for greater Jewish access to the site, accused Palestinian worshippers of provoking the clashes.

"When the Muslims were alone and they told them the Jews were not coming, they celebrated by doing riots," he said.

The compound, which includes the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, is one of the most sensitive sites in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is the third-holiest site in Islam and the most sacred for Jews, who revere it as the location of the two biblical-era temples.

Tisha B'av commemorates the destruction of the two temples.

The site is located in east Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.

Jews can visit but not pray there to avoid provoking tensions.

A potent symbol of Palestinian national identity, it is the scene of regular clashes between Palestinian worshippers and Israeli police.

Sunday's incidents come only weeks ahead of Israel's September 17 elections, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely seen as wanting to maintain calm.

But he also faced pressure from Israeli far-right politicians to open the holy site to Jewish visits.

- Tense Gaza border -

The separate incident on the Gaza border followed two similar ones since the start of the month.

On Saturday, Israel's army said troops shot dead four heavily armed Palestinians on the Gaza border, adding one had managed to cross and throw a grenade at soldiers.

On August 1, a Palestinian seeking to avenge his brother's death by Israeli fire entered Israel from Gaza and opened fire on soldiers, the army said.

Three Israeli soldiers were wounded and the Palestinian was killed, it said.

Regular protests and clashes erupted along the border of the blockaded Gaza Strip in March 2018.

At least 302 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in Gaza or the border area since then, the majority during demonstrations and clashes.

Seven Israelis have also been killed in Gaza-related violence over the same period.

The protests have declined in intensity in recent months following a UN and Egyptian-brokered truce.

Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, ruled by Islamist movement Hamas, have fought three wars since 2008.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniya spoke of the Al-Aqsa clashes on Sunday, saying it "shows the religious dimension of the conflict."

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