Muslims Hold Protest Street Prayers Near Contested Jerusalem Shrine

Palestinians run away from tear gas thrown by Israeli police officers outside Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, July 21, 2017. Israel police severely restricted Muslim access to a contested shrine in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday to prevent protests over the installation of metal detectors at the holy site.. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
Mahmoud Illean/AP
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JERUSALEM (AP) — Thousands of Muslims prayed Friday in the streets near a contested shrine in Jerusalem’s Old City, kneeling on mats spread on cobble stone to protest the installation of metal detectors at the holy site.

The prayers largely ended peacefully. In three areas near the Old City, Israeli forces fired tear gas to disperse small groups of Palestinian stone-throwers.

Muslim leaders had urged the faithful not to enter the sacred compound until Israel removes the detectors, portraying Israel’s measures as an encroachment on Muslim rights — a charge Israel denies.

The city’s top Muslim cleric, Mohammed Hussein, told worshippers Friday that he expects a “long test of wills” with Israel.

Israel also dug in, saying the devices would stay. Israel had installed the metal detectors after three Palestinians launched an attack from the shrine, killing two Israeli policemen a week ago. Police said the metal detectors are needed to prevent further attacks.

On Friday, police severely restricted Muslim access to the area of the Muslim-administered shrine, which is revered by Muslims and Jews.

Police set up checkpoints in and around Jerusalem to prevent widespread protests.

Some 3,000 police were deployed near the Old City, turning away Muslim men under the age of 50. Some worshippers who came from Israel and the West Bank were intercepted before reaching Jerusalem.

The dispute over the detectors has led to rising tensions between Israel and the Muslim world.

Jordan, the custodian of the Jerusalem shrine, has repeatedly appealed to Israel to remove the devices. The two countries cooperate closely on regional security issues, but frequently disagree on Israel’s policies at the shrine, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

On Friday, several thousand Jordanians protested against Israel in the Jordanian capital of Amman.

The raised 37-acre (15-hectare) platform in Jerusalem houses the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosques. It is the third holiest site of Islam, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

The compound, once home to biblical Temples, is Judaism’s holiest site. The Western Wall, a Temple remnant, is the holiest site where Jews can pray.

The shrine sits at the center of rival Israeli and Palestinian national narratives and has triggered major confrontations in the past.

On Friday, thousands of worshippers gathered in the streets near the shrine, laying out their prayer mats under a scorching sun. Volunteers distributed water.

One of the main gathering points was the Old City’s Lion’s Gate, near the spot where the policemen were killed last week.

Jerusalem resident Hashem Abu Diab, 60, led the crowd at Lion’s Gate in chants of “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is Great,” before noon prayers, the highlight of the Muslim religious week.

Abu Diab said the dispute has united Jerusalem’s Palestinians who consider the compound as their last sanctuary from Israel’s 50-year occupation of the eastern part of the city.

“The Al Aqsa Mosque is the last place we have in this country,” he said. “If Al Aqsa goes, we lose everything. We don’t leave until they remove the metal detectors.”

Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, delivered the sermon at Lion’s Gate, where dozens of Israeli police stood near five metal detectors.

Hussein said the faithful must not enter the compound until Israel has removed the devices.

“We are exhausting Israel because all their military and intelligence are in the streets,” he said.” We are steadfast and we will not back off.”

Israeli police said in a statement that the metal detectors will remain in place, but suggested police may at times choose to only conduct spot checks. “Israeli police can decide on the level of checks,” said police spokeswoman Luba Samri.

The age restriction and police deployment came hours after Israel’s security Cabinet decided not to overrule an earlier police decision to install the metal detectors.

The decision to defer to police came amid reports of disagreement among Israel’s security services about the need for the metal detectors. The military and the Shin Bet security services, which deal directly with Palestinians and potential unrest, were reportedly opposed to the devices.

Israel had come under growing pressure this week, including from Jordan, to remove the metal detectors. The rule of Jordan’s Hashemite dynasty, said to trace its ancestry back to the Prophet Muhammad, rests to a large degree on its role as guardian of the site.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who oversees autonomous enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, asked the United States to “intervene urgently” and compel Israel to remove metal detectors, said an adviser, Nabil Abu Rdeneh.

Abbas discussed the growing tensions in Jerusalem in a phone call with Trump’s top adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Abu Rdeneh said.

The Palestinian leader told Kushner that the situation is “extremely dangerous and may go out of control,” Abu Rdeneh said.

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