Israeli Police Stop Muslim Worshipers From Entering Holy Site

JERUSALEM — Israeli police stopped Muslim worshipers from entering the Aqsa Mosque compound for four hours on Sunday morning to prevent contact between Muslims and Jews at the site. The move led to brief clashes in nearby side streets, two days after a more intense bout of violence erupted at the holy complex.

Nine Palestinians were arrested, according to the police. At least 17 were injured, five of them by rubber-tipped bullets fired by the police, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent, an emergency medical group.

The developments compounded the tensions in Jerusalem, which have risen sharply in recent weeks after an unusually deadly wave of Arab attacks in Israel killed 14 people, and after an ensuing Israeli crackdown in the occupied West Bank killed at least 15.

Tensions are expected to rise further in the coming days because of the rare convergence between Ramadan and Passover, which began on Friday and is driving more followers of both Islam and Judaism to the Aqsa compound, which is known to Jews as Temple Mount.

The violence on Sunday began after the police, seeking to prevent contact between Muslims and Jews who had entered the compound, confined Muslims who were already inside it to small parts of the site. They struck some with batons and denied access to Muslims who were still outside the site.

The police then provided Jewish worshipers with an armed escort as they walked around the perimeter of the compound, which was the site of an ancient temple considered the holiest place in Judaism. Tourists and some journalists were also allowed to enter, but were restricted to a more limited area.

Earlier, Palestinians had gathered near the entrance used by non-Muslims to enter the site, blocking part of the route that is usually used by Jews to discreetly pray near where the ancient Jewish temple stood. Photographs published by a Palestinian news outlet indicated that stones had been stockpiled elsewhere on the route.

Clashes later broke out in the side streets around the mosque compound, as the police used batons and sound grenades to force back Muslims who were trying to enter. Palestinians shouted, “With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for Al Aqsa.” A reporter for The New York Times saw several police officers use batons to strike a group of chanting Palestinians who had been standing still outside the mosque complex.

The police also disabled the loudspeakers at the mosque, after Palestinians tried to use the sound system to call people to the site, said Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani, a senior cleric there.

Sheikh Omar described the police actions as “a siege.” In a statement, the police said that their aim was to preserve freedom of worship for all religions, and that they had acted only against people who “defile and desecrate the holy places and try to harm innocent civilians and security forces.”

Other Palestinians locked themselves in the largest mosque in the compound, as the police patrolled outside. That standoff ended late in the morning, after the police began letting some Muslims into the compound and withdrew to allow the Palestinians within the mosque itself to leave. They emerged cheering, some setting off fireworks and one carrying a green flag associated with Hamas, the Islamist militant group that runs the Gaza Strip.

Tensions are often high at the complex in Jerusalem’s Old City, which is sacred to both Islam and Judaism. But they are particularly tense at the moment because of the rare overlap between Ramadan, Passover and Easter, the first since 1991.

Muslims consider efforts by some Jewish activists to pray furtively at the site to be a provocation because they violate the longstanding Israeli policy of allowing Jews to visit, but not pray. They also fear that Jewish prayer there will give momentum to campaigns by small extremist groups to build a new Jewish temple at the site.

Many Muslims have also been angered by recent efforts by extremist Jews to enter the compound with young goats to make a Passover sacrifice. The police said last week that they had arrested some activists who were planning such a sacrifice, and officers intercepted a Jew carrying a goat near the compound on Friday, confiscating the animal.

While some rabbis support Jews praying on Temple Mount, one of the chief rabbis of Israel, David Lau, released a statement last week saying it was forbidden for Jews to set foot there, a stance that many chief rabbis have held since 1967, when Israel captured the site from Jordan. Many Jews believe that by entering the site, they risk stepping on some of the most sacred areas of the ancient Jewish temple.

The clashes on Sunday followed a more intense incident on Friday, when Israeli riot police, firing rubber-tipped bullets and stun grenades, stormed the main mosque in the compound to detain hundreds of Palestinians, many of whom had been throwing stones at them. More than 150 people were injured.

Similar clashes at the mosque last year contributed to the outbreak of an 11-day war between Israel and militants in Gaza led by Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the strip.

This year, however, both Israel and Hamas have signaled that they are not seeking an escalation. Khaled Meshaal, a senior Hamas official, said on Saturday that both sides had conveyed through Qatari officials that they did not want a new conflagration.

But Islamic Jihad, another militant group in Gaza, said on Sunday that recent tensions at the mosque would lead to an “all-out confrontation.”

Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Iyad Abuheweila from Gaza City.

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