Jerusalem — Clashes erupted at a sacred shrine in Jerusalem as thousands of Muslims rushed to pray at the site for the first time in nearly two weeks following Israel’s removal of security devices installed there after a deadly attack.
Israeli police fired tear gas and rubber bullets on Thursday (July 27) as Palestinians threw stones inside the walled compound that is holy to both Muslims and Jews.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said 37 Palestinians were wounded, including some by rubber bullets and beatings. It said several people suffered broken bones.
The new violence came shortly after worshippers rushed to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque that was reopened following an 11-day Muslim prayer boycott over the Israeli security measures.
Israeli police say they responded after stones were thrown at officers at the gates to the site. The Red Crescent said tensions arose when Israeli troops closed one of the gates to the compound as large numbers of worshippers tried to enter.
The shrine had been at the center of an Israeli-Palestinian standoff over recent Israeli security installations at the site. Israel has removed the devices.
Palestinians had been praying in Jerusalem’s streets outside the shrine in the Old City to protest the security measures since the July 14 attack.
Israel installed the new security measures at the Jerusalem shrine after Palestinian gunmen shot and killed two police officers from within the site.
Once Israel removed metal detectors and cameras Thursday, Muslim leaders told the faithful to return to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the compound. Droves of Palestinians entered for afternoon prayers, some waving national flags.
“After extensive discussion and after achieving this victory in this round we call on our people in Jerusalem and inside (Israel) and anyone who can access the Al-Aqsa Mosque to enter … en masse,” the Islamic leaders said in a statement.
Abdel Azim Salhab of the Waqf, Jordan’s religious body that administers the site, had urged imams to close other Jerusalem mosques Friday so worshippers will pray only at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Friday prayers are the highlight of the Muslim religious week. Thousands of Muslims typically worship at the holy compound in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Salhab said all devices had been removed from the entrances but he didn’t know if security cameras that had been mounted on the wall of the compound were also dismantled. He said if they are there, then “we reject it.”
King Abdullah of Jordan urged Israel to “respect the historical and legal situation in the holy shrine to prevent the recurrence of these crises.”
Jordan is the Muslim custodian of the shrine — Islam’s third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Muslims believe the site marks the spot where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
Jews also revere the hilltop compound as the Temple Mount, site of the two Jewish biblical temples. It is the holiest site in Judaism and the nearby Western Wall, a remnant of one of the temples, is the holiest place where Jews can pray.
Abdullah also issued blistering criticism of Israel’s handling of a deadly altercation at its embassy in Amman involving an Israeli security guard, calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct “provocative.”
Abdullah blasted Netanyahu for hugging an Israeli security guard who killed two Jordanians at the Israeli Embassy in Amman over the weekend after a 16-year-old attacked the guard with a screwdriver.
“Such unacceptable and provocative behavior at all levels infuriates all of us, leads to insecurity and fuels extremism in the region,” Abdullah said in a statement.
The embassy incident has inflamed public opinion in Jordan, where a 1994 peace treaty with Israel remains deeply unpopular.
Netanyahu praised the guard upon his return, saying he had acted “calmly.”
Abdullah told senior officials that Netanyahu needs to take legal measures that “guarantee the trial of the murderer.”
He said the incident “will have a direct impact on the nature of our relations.”
Israel said the security measures at the Jerusalem shrine were needed to prevent more attacks and were standard procedure around the world. Palestinians claimed Israel was trying to expand its control over the site, which Israel denied.
The issue sparked some of the worst street clashes in years and threatened to draw Israel into conflict with other Arab and Muslim nations.
Palestinians danced, chanted “God is great” and set off fireworks after some of the security devices were removed Thursday morning. Metal detectors were dismantled earlier this week.
Israel had faced intense pressure over the security devices and said it plans to install sophisticated cameras instead. But Palestinian politicians and Muslim clerics had insisted Israel restore the situation at the shrine to what it was before the attack.
The fate of the site is an emotional issue at the heart of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Even the smallest perceived change to delicate arrangements pertaining to the site sparks tensions.
Israel’s decision to add security measures there outraged Muslims and triggered protests, and low-level clashes have continued in and around Jerusalem in the days since.
The crisis highlighted the deep distrust between Israel and the Palestinians over the holy site.
Netanyahu is trying to halt a wave of unrest while not appearing to his hard-line base as capitulating.
A senior member of Netanyahu’s coalition government criticized Israel’s dismantling of the security devices, saying it could bring more violence.
Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, told Army Radio that “every time the state of Israel folds in a strategic way, we get hit with an intifada. You seemingly benefit in the short term, but in the long term you harm deterrence.”
The Islamic militant group that rules Gaza praised the move. Izzat Risheq, a senior Hamas leader, tweeted that Palestinians achieved a “historic victory.”
“Today, our people celebrate the removal of the gates (security measures), tomorrow they will celebrate the removal of the occupation itself,” he said.