Palestinians, Israeli forces clash amid holy site tensions

Palestinian demonstrators clashed with Israeli troops across the West Bank today, while three tourists were lightly wounded by Palestinian stone throwers as tensions remained high following days of violence at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site.

The hilltop compound, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, was largely quiet today. About 600 tourists and 100 Israelis visited the site without serious incident. Israel has barred Muslim men under the age of 50 from entering the compound in recent days to ease tensions.

The site has experienced repeated clashes over the past two weeks as Palestinian protesters barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque while hurling stones, firebombs and fireworks at Israeli police outside.

The compound in Jerusalem’s Old City is a frequent flashpoint and its fate is a core issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war, as their future capital.

The compound is sacred to Muslims, who refer to it as Noble Sanctuary, the place from where they believe Islam’s Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

The compound is also where the two biblical Jewish Temples stood, and is Judaism’s holiest site. Under a longstanding arrangement, Jews are allowed to visit but not pray there.

The Palestinians view such visits as provocations, and rumors have spread that Jews are planning on taking over the site, fuelling the recent clashes. Israel says there are no plans to change the arrangements.

But calls by a group of religious Jews to visit the site, coupled with periodic Israeli restrictions on Muslim visits, have inflamed tensions.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement staged a series of protests in the West Bank today.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, about 300 protesters affiliated with Fatah marched toward the nearby Israeli settlement of Bet El. The military said “rioters threw rocks at passing vehicles and at forces that arrived at the scene.”

Forces used tear gas, stun grenades and fired rubber and low-caliber bullets at the legs of “main instigators,” it said. At least six Palestinian suffered leg injuries.

In Bethlehem, protesters threw rocks and fire bombs, injuring a paramilitary border police officer, it said.

Fatah officials said today’s demonstrations were meant to protest Israeli actions at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

The clashes occurred a day before Abbas is to address the UN General Assembly. With the plight of the Palestinians overshadowed this year by the civil war in Syria and the migrant crisis in Europe, today’s unrest appeared to be an attempt to draw attention back to the conflict.

The protests also appeared to be a veiled warning to Israel.

Despite cool relations, Israel and the Palestinians have maintained close security cooperation to help ease tensions on the ground.

But today, Palestinian police left their posts and did not prevent marchers from approaching Israeli military checkpoints. In some cases, Palestinian security men even joined the protesters in throwing rocks.

“We can change the security commitments … And implement only what is good for our people,” Fatah official Hana Amira told the Voice of Palestine radio station.