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Rare Temple Mount closure in wake of attack fans flames over status-quo

Israeli police walk past the Dome of the Rock in the compound known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount on May 16, 2017
THOMAS COEX (AFP)
Jordan, Israel spar over closure of most sensitive piece of real estate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

A brazen and deadly attack at Jerusalem's ultra-sensitive Temple Mount compound on Friday morning threatened to inflame long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian tensions over the delicate policy governing Muslim and Jewish prayer at the site.

The fatal shooting of two Israeli police officers at the holy compound in the fractious Old City of Jerusalem prompted Israel to implement an exceedingly rare blanket closure of the site to visitors and worshippers and the cancellation of Friday prayers for the first time in decades.

The hilltop compound, known as the Temple Mount to Jews and as Haram al-Sharif to Muslims, is central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It includes the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and is the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam.

The site has become the site of violent clashes in the past. Palestinians believe that Israel intends to change the status-quo at the site while many Israelis voice frustration over what they see as restrictions on Jewish prayer at the complex.

AFP

Israel's relatively unusual decision to lock down the compound sparked outrage among Palestinians, who suggested that Israeli might use the attack to justify changing the status-quo at the site which allows Muslim prayer there but forbids Jewish prayer and religious rituals.

The move also sparked a war of words between Israel and neighbor Jordan, whose government funds the administration of the Waqf.

While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the Israeli Prime Minister to condemn the attack, the official Fatah Facebook page called on East Jerusalem residents to defy the Israeli closure.

"We appeal to the masses of our people to go to the Al-Aqsa Mosque today, pray there and break the Israeli siege, which aims to change the features of the holy city and Judaize it."

A later post decried that "closing the al-Aqsa Mosque and preventing worshippers from holding Friday prayers a terrorist act is incompatible with all human principles and values."

Israel has vowed repeatedly to maintain the status quo, which allows Muslim prayer there but forbids Jewish prayer and religious rituals, but Friday's attack sparked immediate calls from lawmakers for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to revisit the policy.

AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean, File

Netanyahu rejected Palestinian predictions that Israel would use the incident to recast the delicate situation on the Mount, saying bluntly in a statement that “the status quo will be maintained." He offered the same assurance to Abbas during their phone call.

In a later statement, Netanyahu said that the compound would be gradually reopened to worshippers only on Sunday.

Waqf officials also told Palestinian news outlets that Israeli police had swooped in and made several arrests of guards and other employees at the site, as questions arose of how the attackers managed to enter the site - typically ringed with tight security - carrying guns and knives.

Yehuda Glick, an outspoken Temple Mount activist who survived an assassination attempt at the site in 2014, called Friday’s attack an attempt to “undermine the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount.”

"The extremist Muslims who bloodfuly desecrate the sanctity of the Temple Mount, the holiest place for the Jewish people, have no right to be there," Glick said.

Right-wing Jewish Home Knesset member Moti Yogev called for the compound to be closed to Muslims for an extended period of time.

Israel Police

"For us the Temple Mount is a house of prayer for all nations," he said. "With them, a base of terror and hatred. The Temple Mount should be closed to Muslims for an extended period of time and the security and political control over it should be tightened."

Culture Minister Miri Regev stated that, "The time has come for the Temple Mount to be an open and free place for everyone with no restrictions...as in any other place in Jerusalem."

"The Waqf should administer only the mosque, not the entire mountain, which is under responsibility and sovereignty of the Israeli government. Only then will peace and security return to the Mount and the Old City," Regev stated.

Israel has also enforced a ban on visits to the site by Israeli ministers and parliamentarians since October 2015, when tensions at the site began escalating into a months-long wave of stabbing, car ramming and shooting attacks, and violent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces.

The ban was set to be lifted later this month for a trial period. It was not immediately clear how the attack might impact those plans.

Israel and Jordan spar

The importance attached to the Temple Mount in the Arab world was thrown into sharp relief on Friday as condemnation poured in from the Arab world after Israeli announced their closure of the compound to Muslim worshippers.

Jordan, which according to the peace treaty with Israel has guardianship over Muslim and Christian holy sites in the Old City, called on Israel to "immediately open Al Aqsa Mosque to the worshippers and not take any measures that would change the historical situation in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque."

The statement from the Minister of Information Affairs Dr Mohammed Momani said Jordan maintains a "principled position of condemning the violence" to describe the terror attacks, although it vaguely referring to the incident as an "escalation".

Israel fought back a few hours after the Jordanian statement was published.

Haaretz newspaper quoted officials "close to Netanyahu" as saying: "Instead of condemning the terror attack, Jordan chose to blast Israel, which protects the worshippers and maintains the freedom of worship at the site."

"Israel won't tolerate harm to the holy sites, where it maintains the status quo. All the sides, including Jordan, should maintain restraint and avoid inflaming the situation" the official added.

The wealthy Gulf states Bahrain and Qatar also admonished Israel.

Qatar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement declaring the closure "severe violation of holly [sic] Islamic sites and a provocation to millions of Muslims around the world."

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