Clashes erupt after Israel restricts prayers at holy site

Palestinians hurl stones toward Israeli forces outside Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday. (AFP)
Updated 21 July 2017
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Clashes erupt after Israel restricts prayers at holy site

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.


Gutted Syrian town begins modest reconstruction, street by street

Updated 29 min 47 sec ago
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Gutted Syrian town begins modest reconstruction, street by street

  • Mountains of rubble still block many of the main thoroughfares in Harasta, a town outside Damascus
  • After a blistering weeks-long assault, Syria’s government recaptured it in March

HARASTA, Syria: Khaled’s delicate hands were accustomed to cutting and styling hair in his Syrian hometown Harasta. Now, they’re hauling concrete and sweeping floors to repair homes ravaged by years of fighting.
Mountains of rubble still block many of the main thoroughfares in Harasta, a town outside Damascus held for nearly five years by armed rebels.
After a blistering weeks-long assault, Syria’s government recaptured it in March, and displaced families have been trickling back to check if their homes survived.
Khaled, 35, watches them cross a security checkpoint and approaches to pitch his services: knocking down walls, clearing rubble, and sweeping up debris.
“I used to be a barber, but now I’m a laborer. I wait for families to enter and offer them my services in cleaning and restoration,” he says.
Khaled fled Harasta in 2012 to the nearby town of Al-Tal, where he still lives with his family. Every day, the father of three commutes to Harasta to find work.
His own house still stands, but he cannot return yet: temporary security measures dictate that people who live outside the town cannot stay past nightfall.
“I work with three other people. We use hammers, brooms, and buckets of water. Work is on and off,” he says.
“Clients pay us whatever they can afford.”
Harasta lies in Eastern Ghouta, recaptured this spring by Syrian troops with a deal that saw thousands of rebels and civilians bussed to opposition territory elsewhere.
Others, like 45-year-old Hassan, chose not to leave.
The former petrol station worker remained in Harasta throughout the rebel reign and decided to stay in its aftermath, too.
Hassan now works with Khaled, transporting rocks and other materials in his pick-up truck to construction sites.
“This is the only work in Harasta that pays right now,” says Hassan, wearing a dirty wool sweater despite the heat.
Harasta was once home to 250,000 people, most of them Syrians from elsewhere in the country who worked in the capital but sought cheap rent.
Now, just 15,000 people remain, town officials estimate, unable to leave until security forces clear their names.
With the use of personal cars banned, boys get around on bicycles while women and toddlers shuffle along on foot.
Many of Harasta’s large residential blocks or industrial complexes have been pulverized by strikes, artillery, and mortars.
They stand like massive grey honeycombs overlooking dusty streets still stripped of signs of life, months after fighting has stopped.
Mohammad Naaman, 50, was terrified his home would be among those gutted by fighting — and can hardly contain himself when he finds it still standing.
“I was shocked to see most buildings collapsed. It’s true my house is devastated compared to before, but I’m happy it’s still there at all,” says Naaman.
He, too, fled to Al-Tal in 2012 and still lives there.
The doors and windows of his Harasta home have been blown out and cracks run up the walls, threatening collapse.
But in the living room, a layer of dust blankets plastic flowers still standing in their vases.
“Whatever happens, it’s still my house, and my house is so dear to me,” Naaman says.
Like his neighbors, Naaman’s first step was removing the rubble and debris from his home, dumping them into the main street nearby according to instructions by local authorities.
Vehicles provided by the public works ministry transport the rubble to a local dump, separating metal out so that concrete can be turned back to cement and reused.
“We removed 110,000 cubic meters of rubble from the streets, but there’s still more than 600,000 to go,” says Adnan Wezze, who heads the town council running Harasta since the regime’s recapture.
As he speaks, a demolition digger works on a two-story building. Its metal arm reaches up to the roof and picks off slabs of concrete precariously perched there.
Authorities are working fast to demolish buildings “at risk of collapse, because they present a public safety threat,” says Wezze.
Many urban hubs across Syria, particularly around Damascus, have been hard-hit by hostilities, and President Bashar Assad said this month rebuilding would be his “top priority.”
But Law 10, a recent decree which allows for the expropriation of property to redevelop an area, sparked fears that millions of displaced Syrians would not get the opportunity to make a claim to their land.
Wezze insists that Harasta’s modest efforts were fair.
“We only demolish after getting permission from the owners,” he says.
If they are not present, Wezze adds, “their rights are still protected. We’ve requested proof of property even before areas are designated as development projects.”
“No resident of Harasta will lose his rights — whether they’re here or in exile.”