Israel eases Jerusalem Al-Aqsa mosque restrictions after Kerry talks

A group of Palestinians sit under trees in front of the Dome of the Rock in the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem on Nov 11, 2014. Israel eased restrictions at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque on Friday after US Secretary of State J
A group of Palestinians sit under trees in front of the Dome of the Rock in the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem on Nov 11, 2014. Israel eased restrictions at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque on Friday after US Secretary of State John Kerry announced agreement on steps to reduce tensions at the flashpoint compound. -- PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel eased restrictions at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque on Friday after US Secretary of State John Kerry announced agreement on steps to reduce tensions at the flashpoint compound.

The site, which is holy to Jews as well as Muslims, has been the focus of months of unrest in annexed Arab east Jerusalem, that has spread to the occupied West Bank and Arab communities across Israel, raising fears of a new Palestinian uprising.

The Palestinians have been infuriated by a far-right Jewish campaign for prayer rights at Al-Aqsa that threatens an ultra-sensitive, decades-old status quo.

The violence prompted Kerry to holds a flurry of meetings with the two sides in neighbouring Jordan on Thursday, after which he announced unspecified confidence-building measures to ease the underlying tensions.

Men of all ages were allowed entry for the main weekly Muslim prayers at Al-Aqsa for the first time in "months", an Israeli police spokesman said.

"No age limit on the Temple Mount, we're hoping things will be calm and quiet today," spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld told AFP.

He was using the Jewish term for the Old City holy site that has been the scene of repeated disturbances.

He added that "extra police units were deployed in Jerusalem this morning to prevent any incidents in and around the Old City." Rosenfeld linked the decision to lift age restrictions to Kerry's talks in Jordan with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah II.

"Firm commitments" were made to maintain the status quo at the compound, Kerry said at a press conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.

Israel and Jordan, which has custodial rights at the compound, also agreed to take steps to "de-escalate the situation" in Jerusalem and to "restore confidence".

"We are not going to lay out each practical step. It is more important they be done in a quiet and effective way," Kerry said.

"It is clear to me that they are serious about working on the effort to create de-escalation and to take steps to instil confidence that the status quo will be upheld."

Kerry also met separately in Amman with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who he said also committed to help calm emotions.

"President Abbas and I... discussed constructive steps, real steps - not rhetoric but real steps that people can take - in order to de-escalate the situation and create a climate where we can move forward in a positive and constructive way," Kerry said.

"President Abbas strongly restated his firm commitment to nonviolence, and he made it clear that he will do everything possible to restore calm and to prevent the incitement of violence and to try to change the climate."

Netanyahu has said repeatedly that his government has no plans to change the status quo at the compound which allows Jews to visit but not pray.

But his reassurances have failed to calm Palestinian anger that has also been fuelled by his government's vigorous expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said on Wednesday he would order the installation of metal detectors at the entrances to the compound along with facial-recognition technology.

Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Islamic Waqf which runs the compound, rejected the idea.

An Israeli human rights group on Friday accused the police and paramilitary border police of "serious irregularities" in dispersing Palestinian protests in east Jerusalem.

An 11-year-old Palestinian boy was wounded in the Issawiya neighbourhood on Thursday when a so-called sponge round fired by police hit him between the eyes during clashes, medics said.

"The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has repeatedly warned the Israel police in recent months about serious irregularities in the conduct of police and border police in dispersing riots and demonstrations in east Jerusalem," the group said in a statement.

"Among other issues, these warnings have focused on the use of foam-tipped bullets in contravention to police regulations," it added.

"Regulations stipulate that foam-tipped bullets must only be aimed at the lower body, yet the testimonies we have received... indicate that police forces operating in east Jerusalem have fired at, and hit the faces of, residents and journalists."