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Al-Aqsa prayers quiet but Jews attacked later

JERUSALEM: Weekly Muslim prayers at Jerusalem’s flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque passed peacefully Friday despite tensions in the Holy City, but Palestinians later wounded two Jews as they walked to worship not far away.

And in the West bank city of Hebron, stone-throwing Palestinians rioted, responding to a call by the militant Islamist Hamas for a “day of rage.”

After Israel dropped age restrictions for attending Friday prayers for the second week running, tens of thousands of people made their way to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in occupied Arab east Jerusalem.

Police were out in force to prevent a repeat of clashes, led by young Palestinians, that have rocked the city for months.

Men and women of all ages shuffled into the compound, holy to both Jews and Muslims, as police carefully checked the identity cards of younger worshippers.

But after dark, a few hundred metres (yards) away, Palestinians attacked seven Israelis on their way to Sabbath eve prayers, lightly injuring two of them following an exchange of insults.

“A group of Jewish worshippers were attacked as they walked…to Beit Horot,” police said, referring to a Jewish seminary set up on the Mount of Olives by ultranationalist rabbi Benny Elon in 1999.

One man was stabbed in the back and the second hit with a blunt instrument, apparently an iron bar.

The Palestinians have been infuriated by a far-right Jewish campaign for prayer rights at the compound that threatens an ultra-sensitive, decades-old status quo under which Jews may visit but not pray.

Police had tried to preempt unrest by limiting male entry to those over 35, but Israel eased the restrictions last week as part of steps aimed at reducing tensions.

– ‘Cause for intifada’ –

Wasel Qassem, 35, said lifting the age bar might gradually help calm tempers.

“Restrictions were the main cause” of tension, said the radiotherapist, who was able to pray at the site for the first time in several weeks.

“Al-Aqsa is an obvious cause for another intifada,” or uprising, he said, adding that a spate of Palestinian attacks in Jerusalem was perceived as “revenge or defence” of the compound.

The compound, known in Arabic as Al-Haram Al-Sharif, is the third-holiest place in Islam. It is the holiest site for Jews, who call it Temple Mount.

While Israel controls entry to the site in the heart of the Old City, Jerusalem’s Muslim authorities administer it, while Jordan acts as custodian.

Israel is struggling to contain a spike in unrest in east Jerusalem that has seen a growing number of deadly attacks by Palestinians.

On Tuesday, two Palestinians killed five people at a synagogue in west Jerusalem — far from Al-Aqsa and flashpoint eastern neighbourhoods — before being shot dead.

The city’s bloodiest attack in years, it followed a spate of “lone-wolf” attacks, including two incidents in which Palestinians ploughed cars into pedestrians, killing four people.

Despite the lifting of restrictions, resentment simmered under the surface Friday.

“The age limitations are only lifted because it’s to their (Israel’s) benefit,” said 23-year-old Amir, an engineer who had come from Ramallah in the West Bank to pray for the first time since June.

“People are afraid of coming. The situation here is very risky.”

Fellow worshipper Bilal underlined the importance of the site for Muslims, attributing months of tension to perceived Jewish attempts to take it over.

“Al-Aqsa is very important. A lot of people would die for it,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, hundreds of Palestinians heeded a call from Islamist group Hamas for a “day of rage” in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

A military spokeswoman said “350 rioters threw stones outside a mosque” and “were being dispersed by non-lethal means.”

No arrests were made. -AFP

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