By Luke Baker
Muslim men over 50 prayed at the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday amid intense security, a day after Israel closed all access to the sacred compound for the first time in more than a decade following violence on the streets.
More than 1,000 Israeli police were deployed around the Old City’s cobbled streets and the ancient gates that lead to al Aqsa, a spokeswoman said, in addition to undercover anti-riot units and observation balloons floating in the sky.
Israeli police frequently limit access to al Aqsa to women and Muslim men over the age of 40 or 50 when they are concerned about potential clashes at the site.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said through his spokesman that the closure of al Aqsa combined with other dangerous escalations by Israel were “tantamount to a declaration of war”.
The official Palestinian news agency, Wafa, later said Abbas had held a phone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and that the Palestinian leader had praised Kerry’s efforts and those of Jordanian King Abdullah “to stop the Israeli practices and halt the escalation”.
Worshippers wanting to enter the ornate marble-and-stone compound, which contains the golden Dome of the Rock and al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam, queued behind blue barricades to show their identification papers to the police.
More than 4,000 people attended midday prayers, police said. There were a few isolated disturbances, including firecrackers being set off nearby and an attempt by a group of young Palestinian men to break through the police cordon.
Clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces erupted at several locations across the West Bank in the afternoon and a number of protesters were injured, Palestinian medical officials said.
Israeli authorities shut all access to al Aqsa on Thursday after the shooting of Yehuda Glick, a far-right religious activist who has led a campaign for Jews to be allowed to pray at the site, which they refer to as Temple Mount.
Glick, 48, was shot as he left a conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday. The man suspected of shooting him, a Palestinian from the neighbourhood of Abu Tor in the eastern, mainly Arab side of the city, was shot dead by Israeli forces before dawn on Thursday, following an exchange of gunfire.
Locals said it was the first time all access to al Aqsa had been banned since the second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, erupted in 2000. But Jordanian authorities, who are responsible for administering the site, and Palestinian officials said it was the first full closure of the compound since the 1967 Middle East war.
Tensions have been high on the streets of East Jerusalem and around al Aqsa for weeks, following the summer Gaza conflict and Israel’s moves to expand settlement building in eastern areas of the city, which the Palestinians want as the capital of an independent state alongside the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Al Aqsa is a particularly sensitive issue. The elegant 15 hectare compound, lined with cypress trees, houses the 7th century Dome of the Rock, from where the Prophet Mohammad is said to have ascended into heaven.
As well as its Islamic heritage, it was home to two ancient Jewish temples, the second of which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and is revered as the holiest site in Judaism.
According to rules agreed between Israel and Jordan after the 1967 war, while Jews are allowed to access al Aqsa, they are not allowed to pray there. That status quo has stood without serious challenge for the past five decades.
However, Glick and his supporters, including a far-right member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, are determined to change the status quo, saying Jews have as much right to pray at al Aqsa as Muslims.
Glick has even spoken of rebuilding a Jewish temple on the site, comments regarded as a deep incitement by Muslims.
While Netanyahu has repeatedly promised that the status quo will not change, his reassurances have done little to calm Palestinian concerns. Glick, an American-Israeli who lives in a settlement, has become a hate figure to many Palestinians.
Jordanian officials said Israel agreed to reopen al Aqsa following a personal intervention by King Abdullah. They said Abdullah had emphasised that any continued closure would only heighten religious tensions, deepening a political conflict.
Israel and Jordan, which signed a peace accord 20 years ago this month, have a highly sensitive relationship. When it comes to issues of sovereignty over Islamic sites in Jerusalem, however, it is the Jordanians who hold greatest sway.
Ahmed Abu Zaaror, 21, who runs a stand selling pomegranate juice in the Muslim quarter of the Old City, was frustrated that younger men were being denied access to al Aqsa.
“I normally go five times a day to pray, but the police are not letting me today,” said Zaaror. Asked if he was angry at the situation he replied:
“What can I say? I have to keep all my anger inside.”
While Glick and his followers have managed to move their once marginal issue into mainstream discussion in Israel, many Jews still regard going up to Temple Mount as forbidden.
Ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi Jews who pray daily at the Western Wall, which sits under the Aqsa compound, said they would never go up to the Temple Mount above.
“We can’t go there, it’s forbidden by the Torah,” said Nathan Barzilai, 35, a Haredi Jew walking through the Muslim quarter of the Old City. “Only when the Messiah comes, but not until then.”