JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel on Thursday promised Jordan that it would not allow Jews to pray at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound as scores of Jewish extremists tried to march to the flashpoint shrine.
With clashes raging in several Palestinian neighbourhoods in annexed east Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke by phone with Jordan’s King Abdullah II to personally reassure him there would be no changes to the decades-old status quo.
It came 24 hours after a tense confrontation at the mosque compound as Israeli police faced off with Palestinian stone-throwers bent on preventing a visit by Jewish extremists – prompting Jordan to recall its ambassador.
“I spoke today to King Abdullah of Jordan and we agreed that we will make every effort to calm the situation,” Netanyahu said.
“I explained to him that we’re keeping the status quo on the Temple Mount and that this includes Jordan’s traditional role there,” he said, using Israel’s name for the compound which once housed the two Jewish temples.
Under the current status quo, Jews are permitted to visit the esplanade but not to pray there for fear it would cause friction at one of the most sensitive holy sites in the Middle East.
King Abdullah “recalled that Jordan firmly rejected any measure undermining the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa mosque", a palace statement said.
Jordan’s status as custodian of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound and other Muslim holy sites in annexed east Jerusalem is enshrined in the 1994 peace treaty between the two countries.
Concerns that Israel was set to legislate changes to the status quo have sparked weeks of unrest at the site.
'MARCH ON TEMPLE MOUNT’
As Netanyahu spoke, around 150 Jewish zealots gathered near the Old City for a march “to the gates of the Temple Mount”.
“We are proudly marching with high heads to the direction of the Temple Mount. God willing, we’ll get there,” organiser Ariel Groner told AFP at the site where a Palestinian recently tried to assassinate Yehuda Glick, a hardline campaigner for Jewish prayer rights at the compound.
Groner explained the march was meant as a display of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem, including its eastern sector.
Yaakov Heyman, an American-born Israeli, said he was there to send a message to those Palestinians protesting against Jews “exercising our rights on the Temple Mount”.
“Bullets won’t stop our freedom,” he said, as the crowd waved blue and gold flags emblazoned with a picture of the Temple.
“The status quo isn’t holy, the Temple Mount is.”
Demonstrators then marched towards the Western Wall, which organisers termed “what we call the gates of the Temple Mount", but were finally stopped by police before the entrance to the plaza, where they prayed for Glick’s speedy recovery.
Elsewhere in the occupied eastern sector of the city, heavy clashes broke out between police and Palestinian stone-throwers.
The worst violence was in Shuafat refugee camp where around 200 youths hurled rocks and firecrackers at the security forces, who responded with tear gas, percussion grenades and sponge rounds, an AFP correspondent said.
RESTRICTIONS FOR FRIDAY PRAYERS
Police announced late on Thursday they would prevent men under 35 from entering Al-Aqsa compound for Friday prayers, since they had intelligence indicating “Arab youths intended to disrupt order” following services.
East Jerusalem has been gripped by unrest for months, but tensions surged on Wednesday after the confrontations at Al-Aqsa and a deadly attack in which a Palestinian from Shuafat refugee camp deliberately ran over two groups of pedestrians.
A border policeman was killed and nine other people were injured. The Palestinian driver was shot dead by police.
It was the second such incident targeting pedestrians waiting by the city’s light rail system in a fortnight, and triggered fears of a spate of copycat attacks.
Hours later, another Palestinian ran over three Israeli soldiers in the southern West Bank, leaving one in serious condition.
The 23-year-old driver turned himself in on Thursday, insisting it had been a road accident, his family told AFP.
Army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner acknowledged it may have been accidental, but told AFP that the investigation was still ongoing.
Jerusalem has been wracked by unrest since July 2 when a Palestinian teenager was burned alive by a group of young Jewish extremists.
Wednesday’s attack sparked new rioting in Shuafat camp, Issawiya and Silwan, with police arresting 16 Palestinians for public order offences.
By morning the city was calm, although the police worked through the night to set up roadblocks in flashpoint Palestinian neighbourhoods and deployed reinforcements at key junctions.
They also began installing concrete barricades at the 24 stops along Jerusalem’s 14km light railway.