Clashes rock Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound

Palestinian women run away as Israeli police throw a stun grenade in Jerusalem's Old City on Sunday.
Palestinian women run away as Israeli police throw a stun grenade in Jerusalem's Old City on Sunday. PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Muslims and Israeli police clashed at Jerusalem's flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound on Sunday hours before the start of the Jewish New Year, the latest violence over access to the site sacred to both faiths.

The clashes came with tensions running high after Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon last week outlawed two Muslim groups that confront Jewish visitors to the compound.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas condemned what he called an Israeli police "attack" at the site, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said authorities must prevent rioting there.

Muslim witnesses said police entered the mosque, Islam's third-holiest site, and caused damage. Police said only they closed its doors to lock in rioters throwing stones, fireworks and other objects.

A police statement said the rioters barricaded themselves in the mosque overnight with the aim of disrupting visits by Jews to the site ahead of the start of New Year celebrations on Sunday evening.

It said police raided the compound to ensure visits could go ahead as usual. Protesters then targeted police from inside the mosque.

"Masked protesters who were inside the mosque threw stones and fireworks at police," it said. "Suspect pipes that could be filled with homemade explosives were also found at the entry to the mosque."

Protesters have previously used such pipes to direct the trajectory of fireworks.

A Muslim witness accused police of entering the mosque much further than would have been needed to close the doors and of causing damage, saying prayer mats were partly burned. Witnesses also said a number of windows were broken.

Police cleared people from the site, including members of the Waqf, the Jordanian organisation that administers it, a Waqf spokesman said.

Far-right Israeli Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel was among Jewish activists who visited the site later, media reported.

"It's the first time that they evacuated all the guards," Waqf spokesman Firas al-Dibs told AFP, adding that two had been wounded by rubber bullets. "The director of Al-Aqsa mosque, Omar Kaswani, was injured and arrested."

Police, who denied using rubber bullets, said calm later returned to the complex, though clashes continued outside in the alleyways of Jerusalem's Old City, with authorities firing tear gas and stun grenades.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said 20 people needed hospital treatment.

An AFP journalist saw several people being detained and heavy police deployment in the Old City. News photographers, including one from AFP, were kicked and hit by Israeli police seeking to push back crowds.

Abbas said sites such as Al-Aqsa constituted a "red line", adding that "we will not allow attacks against our holy places".

"The presidency strongly condemns the attack by the occupier's military and police against the Al-Aqsa mosque and the aggression against the faithful who were there," a statement from his office said.

A Netanyahu statement said Israel would act "to maintain the status quo and order" at the compound, venerated by Jews as the Temple Mount.

"It is our responsibility and our power to act against rioters to allow freedom of worship at this holy place," he said.

United Nations Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov urged restraint on both sides.

"I urge all to do their part in ensuring that visitors and worshippers demonstrate restraint and respect for the sanctity of the area," he said in a statement. "I take note of the statement by the prime minister of Israel that the status quo at the Holy Sites will be maintained."

Jordan condemned what it described as an assault by the Israeli army. Egypt, the only other Arab country to have a peace treaty with Israel, also condemned its actions at the compound.

Non-Muslims are allowed to visit the compound, but Jews must not pray or display national symbols for fear of triggering tensions with Muslim worshippers.

Muslims fear Israel will seek to change rules governing the site, with far-right Jewish groups pushing for more access and even efforts by fringe organisations to erect a new temple.

The defence minister last week banned the Murabitat and Murabitun groups, which his office said were "a main factor in creating the tension and violence" at the compound.

Israel seized east Jerusalem, where Al-Aqsa is located, in the Six Day War of 1967 and later annexed it in a move never recognised internationally.

The compound is the scene of frequent clashes.

In late July, Israeli police entered Al-Aqsa as they clashed with Muslims angered by Jews' access to the compound on an annual day of Jewish mourning.