Militants threaten war with Israel
MIDDLE EAST: Palestinian militants in Gaza threatened war with Israel as clashes continued in Jerusalem yesterday over a crisis at the city’s holiest site.
Dozens of armed, masked men warned at a press conference in Gaza City that the tensions around the al-Aqsa mosque could be a ‘‘spark that ignites the whole region’’. One said: ‘‘We will not allow our enemy to invade our alAqsa, our holy sites, and our people in Jerusalem. We are preparing for war.’’
There were scuffles yesterday at the Lions’ Gate, one of the entrances to the mosque, after police used stun grenades to disperse a small crowd of protesters who held prayers on the pavement. The clashes at the site have been going on for six days.
Yesterday’s unrest was far short of the ‘‘day of rage’’ promised by Fatah, the secular party that governs the occupied West Bank, but Israel will deploy thousands of police officers in the city today anyway, when Muslims typically visit the mosque for Friday noon prayers.
The crisis began last Friday when gunmen killed two Israeli policemen in the Old City. The attackers fled to the al-Aqsa mosque compound but were killed in a gunfight.
Israel then took the rare step of closing the site for two days, the first time it had done so in nearly half a century. While searching the area, police said they found a cache of weapons, including a submachinegun.
They tried to reopen the mosque on Sunday after installing metal detectors at the entrances but Muslim officials at the mosque refused to pass through them, calling them a violation of the complex arrangements that govern access to the disputed site.
‘‘The longer Israel delays the removal of the metal detectors, the worse it is going to get,’’ Azzam Tamimi, the imam in charge of the mosque, said in a statement.
Those arrangements have been a source of controversy for decades. Israel gained control of the site when it occupied east Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War with its Arab neighbours. The complex is sacred both in Judaism - Jewish people know it as the Temple Mount, the site of the Biblical temples - and in Islam.
Clashes at the complex in 2015 sparked off months of violence, caused by lone Palestinians attacking Israelis with knives or ramming them with cars.
Jewish people are allowed to visit the site, but they are forbidden to pray there. Yesterday the Jerusalem police chief, Yoram Halevi, temporarily closed the site to non-Muslims after a group of Jewish visitors tried to enter with prayer books. Palestinians fear that any changes at the site are meant to restrict their access, even though Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has promised to uphold the status quo. A faction within his right-wing coalition wants to open the site for Jewish prayers, and some far-right groups have proposed building a new Jewish temple on the esplanade.
In past years, even changing the carpets inside the mosque turned into a high-level political spat between Israeli and Palestinian ministers.
Israeli officials defend the metal detectors as a commonsense security measure. Visitors to the Western Wall, a Jewish holy site below the mosque compound, have passed through similar checks for decades. Netanyahu, at present in Budapest, discussed the unrest in a call with security chiefs yesterday, but did not announce any policy changes.
Jerusalem’s Muslim leader, Grand Mufti Muhammad Hussein, called for the city’s mosques to be closed today as a protest against the security measures, saying Muslims should hold prayers outside Al-Aqsa instead. - The Times