Israel lifts Muslim age limit at Jerusalem shrine

Israel lifts Muslim age limit at Jerusalem shrine
An Israeli border police officer guards at Damascus Gate of the Jerusalem's Old City ahead of Friday prayers

Muslim prayers at a major Jerusalem shrine, which has been the epicentre of weeks of unrest, ended peacefully on Friday after Israel lifted restrictions on the entry of worshippers in an apparent bid to ease tensions.

The decision to allow Muslims of all ages to pray at the site coincided with a diplomatic push by US secretary of state John Kerry to restore calm. The push includes getting all sides to agree on the ground rules at the Muslim-run shrine and prevent future tensions.

Mr Kerry is meeting over the weekend with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, custodian of the holy site, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, after holding talks on Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The current round of violence erupted in mid-September, with clashes at the Jerusalem shrine, revered by Muslims and Jews, quickly spreading to the rest of the city, as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Confrontations erupted on the Israel-Gaza border on Friday, with the two sides separated by a border fence. The military said hundreds of Palestinians threw stones and rolled burning tyres towards the fence. Several dozen then rushed towards the fence and tried to damage it, the army said.

Two Palestinians were injured by army fire, Gaza health officials said. The military said soldiers initially fired warning shots.

Earlier Friday, a Palestinian stabbed a soldier in the West Bank and was shot by troops, the military said. The soldier and the Palestinian – a 16-year-old, according to Israeli media reports – were wounded.

In the past five weeks, 10 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks, mostly stabbings. Forty-eight Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, including 27 said by Israel to be attackers and the rest in clashes.

Tension around the Jerusalem shrine, a 37-acre hilltop platform, has been one of the triggers of the current violence.

Israel has repeatedly denied Palestinian allegations that it is trying to change long-standing understandings under which Jewish people are allowed to visit, but not pray at the shrine. Israel has accused Palestinian political and religious leaders of lying and inciting to violence.

Palestinians say their fears have been fuelled by a rise in visits to the shrine by Jewish activists demanding prayer rights, including senior members of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition government.

The hilltop compound is a frequent flashpoint and its fate is a core issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is the holiest site in Judaism, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, once home to their biblical Temples.

Muslims call it the Noble Sanctuary and believe it is the spot where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. It is the third holiest site in Islam and houses the Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques.

Lifting age restrictions on Muslim worshippers on Friday appeared to be part of an Israeli attempt to ease tensions.

Over the past few weeks, Israel had barred younger Muslim men – seen by police as the main potential trouble-makers – from entering the compound on Fridays, the main day of prayer in the Muslim religious week. The bans, which were put into place intermittently, had at times targeted men up to the age of 50.

Muslims view age restrictions as part of the perceived Israeli attempt to step up its control.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said on Friday that age restrictions were lifted after security assessments.

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