Last updated: 14 November, 2014

Israel moves to restore stability by allowing all men to join Jerusalem mosque prayers

Men of all ages will be allowed to attend the main weekly Muslim prayers Friday at Jerusalem's flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound for the first time in "months", a police spokesman said.

Israel lifted restrictions Friday on Muslims praying at Jerusalem’s flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque after US Secretary of State John Kerry announced an agreement on steps to reduce tensions surrounding it.

The mosque compound, holy to Jews and Muslims, has been the focus of months of unrest in annexed Arab east Jerusalem, that has spread to the occupied West Bank and Arab communities across Israel and raised fears of a new Palestinian uprising.

Palestinians have been infuriated by a far-right Jewish campaign for prayer rights at Al-Aqsa that threatens an ultra-sensitive, decades-old status quo that allows only Muslims to pray there.

The violence prompted Kerry to meet with the two sides in neighbouring Jordan Thursday, after which he announced that confidence-building measures had been agreed.

For the first time in months, men of all ages were allowed entry for the main weekly Muslim prayers at Al-Aqsa, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

Amir, an 18-year-old from the volatile east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan, told AFP: “It’s been four months that I haven’t been able to pray at Al-Aqsa on Friday, even during the holy month of Ramadan.”

Police said 40,000 worshippers attended the prayers, which passed off without incident, with men worshipping in the Al-Aqsa mosque and women at the neighbouring Dome of the Rock.

Many could not get inside and had to lay their prayer rugs outside on the esplanade of the compound.

There was a heavy police presence at the entrances to the compound and in the narrow streets of the Old City that it dominates, but they limited themselves to occasionally checking passers-by.

Rosenfeld linked the decision to lift age restrictions to Kerry’s talks in Jordan with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah II.

“Firm commitments” were made to maintain the status quo, Kerry said at a news conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.

Israel and Jordan, which has custodial rights at the compound, also agreed to take steps to de-escalate the situation in Jerusalem and restore confidence.

Kerry met separately in Amman with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who he said also committed to help calm emotions.

These would be “constructive steps, real steps… that people can take in order to de-escalate the situation and create a climate where we can move forward in a positive and constructive way,” Kerry said.

Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is due in the Palestinian territories and Israel from Saturday for talks with leaders on both sides, a spokesman in Berlin said.

– Sporadic clashes –

But while the mood at Friday prayers was calm, there were sporadic clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces Friday afternoon at the Qalandiya checkpoint connecting Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah.

There were other violent confrontations in the West Bank city of Hebron.

And police were out in force in Silwan, where one policeman was lightly injured by a firework thrown by a Palestinian late Friday, police spokeswoman Luba Samri said.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said his government has no plans to change the status quo at the compound, but his reassurances have failed to calm Palestinian anger that has also been fuelled by his government’s vigorous expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

A preacher at Al-Aqsa Friday denounced “Israeli aggression” in his sermon.

Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said Wednesday he would order the installation of metal detectors at the entrances to the compound along with facial-recognition technology.

Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Islamic Waqf which runs the compound, rejected the idea.

And an Israeli rights group accused the police and paramilitary border police Friday of “serious irregularities” in dispersing Palestinian protests in east Jerusalem a day earlier.

An 11-year-old Palestinian boy was wounded in the Issawiya neighbourhood Thursday when a so-called sponge round hit him between the eyes during clashes, medics said.

“Regulations stipulate that foam-tipped bullets must only be aimed at the lower body,” the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said.

“Yet the testimonies we have received… indicate that police forces operating in east Jerusalem have fired at, and hit the faces of, residents and journalists,” it added.