Jonah Mandel, AFP
Last updated: 28 October, 2014

Jerusalem mayor under fire for Al-Aqsa visit

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat visited the Al-Aqsa mosque compound Tuesday, his office said, prompting criticism from the site's Muslim authorities following weeks of tension at the flashpoint shrine.

Jerusalem’s Israeli mayor visited the Al-Aqsa mosque compound Tuesday, angering Islamic authorities, but police said the day passed in “relative calm” after weeks of tension at the flashpoint shrine.

The diplomatic front was heating up, however, with the UN Security Council to hold an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss Israel’s plans to build more Jewish settlements in Arab east Jerusalem.

Mayor Nir Barkat toured the Al-Aqsa compound with a police escort, after weeks of intermittent clashes triggered by reports Israel is considering allowing Jews to pray at the sprawling site in the Old City.

Barkat “visited the Temple Mount together with the chief of police responsible for the area to assess the current situation and gain a deeper understanding of the issues and challenges at the site,” a statement said, using the Jewish term for the compound.

The Islamic Waqf, the body which oversees the site, decried the visit.

It was “merely for publicity and its political nature is characteristic of” Barkat, Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Waqf, told AFP.

In a statement, the Al-Aqsa Foundation condemned what it described as the “storming” of the compound by Barkat.

“This does not give any legitimacy to considering Al-Aqsa part of the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem (Israeli) municipality, and does not erase the eternal Islamic character of the mosque,” said the foundation, an offshoot of a radical branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement religious advocacy group.

Tensions often erupt at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is both the third-holiest location in Islam and the most sacred place in Judaism.

A provocative visit by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the compound in 2000 sparked the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada, a five-year uprising that left hundreds dead.

– Tensions running high –

Non-Muslim visits are permitted and regulated by police, but Jews are not allowed to pray there for fear it could trigger major disturbances, nor do they enter the mosques.

It was Jordan which requested the Security Council meeting at the urging of the Palestinians, to discuss Israeli plans to build 1,060 new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem, diplomats said.

The move has infuriated Palestinians who warned it could trigger an “explosion” of violence.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shrugged off US and European criticism as “detached from reality”.

The European Union said the plans “call once again into serious question Israel’s commitment to a negotiated solution with the Palestinians,” warning of consequences for EU-Israel ties.

And the State Department stuck by its earlier criticism of the settlement policy.

“We’ve seen the prime minister’s remarks,” said spokeswoman Jen Psaki tersely.

“Our policy has been clear for many administrations. The policy continues to oppose unilateral steps that would prejudge the outcome of negotiations on Jerusalem.”

And she argued “that if actions are taken that are not conducive to peace, it makes it very difficult to not only return to a negotiation but to obviously reach a two-state solution.”

Referring to the EU’s threat of consequences, Psaki said: “Israel cares deeply about their place and role in the world. That’s obviously something they factor in.”

– More clashes –

In the occupied West Bank, Israeli troops shot and wounded four Palestinians in a clash in the northern village of Yabad, the Israeli army and Palestinian medical officials said.

An army spokeswoman said a patrol entered the village to stop stone-throwing at Israeli vehicles and came under attack from Palestinians hurling rocks and flares.

They used live fire after their attackers failed to respond to warnings and non-lethal means, she said. Palestinian medical officials said none of the four were in life-threatening condition.

Jerusalem’s annexed Arab eastern sector has been the site of near-nightly clashes since the murder of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists in July, which intensified during the 50-day Gaza war over the summer.

Clashes again intensified last week after a Palestinian from the Silwan neighborhood drove his car into Jerusalem pedestrians, killing an infant and a young woman. He was shot dead by police trying to flee the scene.