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Clashes erupt after Israel restricts prayers at holy site

Palestinians hurl stones toward Israeli forces outside Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday. (AFP)
JERUSALEM: Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli forces outside Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday as tensions mounted over new security measures at a highly sensitive holy site and prompted police to restrict access for Muslim prayers.
The unrest came after Israeli ministers decided not to order the removal of metal detectors erected at entrances to the Haram Al-Sharif compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, following an attack nearby a week ago that killed two policemen.
In anticipation of protests on Friday, Israeli police barred men under 50 from entering the Old City for prayers, while all women were allowed in.
Police said later in the day that discretion could be applied in the use of the metal detectors instead of forcing everyone to go through them.
But Palestinian and religious leaders were still calling on worshippers not to enter until they were removed.
Hundreds held midday prayers near the gates of the Old City in protest. According to police, dozens of people entered the compound.
Crowds gathered outside the Old City found shops closed and streets around Damascus Gate — the entrance most heavily used by Palestinians — blocked.
A group of several hundred people, including Muslim leaders, marched toward the Lions’ Gate entrance to the mosque compound, but police informed them that only men aged 50 or over would be allowed in.
Police later fired stun grenades and tear gas toward protesters outside the Old City, while Palestinians threw stones and other objects at security forces in some areas.
“They turned back everyone who came here to pray but then I told them I was going to the doctor, but they did not let me in,” said Ulfat Hamad, 42, who was visiting from the US.
“I am going to pray here with others,” he said outside the walls.
Tensions have risen since police installed the metal detectors in a move Palestinians and other Muslims perceive as a means for Israel to assert further control over the compound containing Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock.
The controversy has resonated beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories, with the US and the UN Middle East envoy expressing concern.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas spoke with US counterpart Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
He urged the US administration to immediately intervene warning that the the situation was “extremely dangerous and might spiral out of control,” the official Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan too has called on Israel to remove the detectors. He spoke by telephone with both Abbas and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday.
In their conversation, Erdogan urged Rivlin to swiftly remove the detectors “within the framework of freedom of religion and worship.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed that the metal detectors were intended to ensure the safety of worshippers and visitors and not an attempt to disturb the fragile status quo under which Jordan is custodian of the site and Jewish prayer is forbidden.
In Gaza, militant movement Hamas called for a day of “rage” on Friday. In the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, Palestinians also prayed outside in support of the Al-Aqsa protests.
The Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount is central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It lies in East Jerusalem, seized by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never recognized by the international community.
It is considered the third holiest site in Islam and the most sacred for Jews.

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