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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Dozens injured in fresh clashes as worshippers return to Al Aqsa Mosque

Israeli police fire tear gas and rubber bullets amid concerns that clashes will intensify

Palestinian worshippers run for cover during clashes with Israeli riot police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. EPA/Fayiz Abu Rmeleh
Palestinian worshippers run for cover during clashes with Israeli riot police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. EPA/Fayiz Abu Rmeleh

Dozens of people were reported injured last night after Israeli police fired tear gas and rubber bullets as Muslim worshippers returned to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque for the first time in two weeks.

Tensions rose as Israeli officials closed an entry gate as thousands of Muslims returned to the holy site following the removal Thursday of metal detectors and other security measures put in place after the fatal shooting of two Israeli police officers on July 14. The Red Crescent said 96 people were wounded in the melee.

Muslims had refused to enter the site and prayed in the streets around the site following the new security measures, viewed by Palestinians as Israel asserting further control over Al Haram Al Sharif, which houses the mosque and the Dome of the Rock and is considered a holy site by both Muslims and Jews. Israel said the measures were needed to prevent more attacks.

The crisis – which had appeared to be easing after Muslim leaders told the faithful to return to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque – reignited just before the start of worship when police fired tear gas at the crowds. Israeli officials said they responded to stones thrown at them.

Several young men climbed on the mosque’s roof to place Palestinian flags, which were swiftly removed by Israeli police.

Further clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces continued after nightfall, with the Red Crescent saying at least eight people were hurt.

Police were weighing restricting entry of younger men in anticipation of mass protests for Friday prayers called by rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas. Israeli troops in the West Bank were put on high alert and were preparing for more violence, a military official said.

The simmering crisis has sparked some of the worst street clashes in years and threatened to draw Israel into conflict with other Arab and Muslim nations.

The removal of the security measures marked a significant climbdown by right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and followed days of diplomatic effort by the United Nations, the involvement of U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy and pressure from Muslim Arab powers in the region.

King Abdullah of Jordan, which is the Muslim custodian of the shrine, urged Israel to "respect the historical and legal situation in the holy shrine to prevent the recurrence of these crises."

The fate of the shrine is an emotional issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even the smallest perceived change to delicate arrangements pertaining to the site sparks tensions.

Netanyahu said he wants to expel Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera from Israel, claiming that it was inciting tensions around the site.

"I have appealed to law enforcement agencies several times to close the Al Jazeera office in Jerusalem,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “If this is not possible because of legal interpretation, I am going to seek to have the necessary legislation adopted to expel Al Jazeera from Israel."

Israel has regularly accused Al Jazeera of bias in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The network did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Mr Netanyahu also did not respond to a request for further comment on the post.