JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli police arrested the top Palestinian Muslim religious leader in Jerusalem on Wednesday and questioned him for six hours about a fracas between Palestinians and Israelis at al-Aqsa mosque before releasing him without charge.
Palestinian leaders and neighboring Jordan condemned the arrest of Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem after Palestinian worshippers scuffled with Israelis near Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque on Tuesday.
Israeli President Shimon Peres sought to reassure Jordan, one of the few Arab powers to have recognized the Jewish state, that religious freedom in Jerusalem would be upheld.
Hussein’s arrest came the same day Israel celebrated the anniversary of its capture of East Jerusalem, where al-Aqsa is located, from Jordanian control in the 1967 Middle East war.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Hussein was arrested to answer questions about what he called the “public disturbance” near al-Aqsa, which overlooks Judaism’s Western Wall. Rosenfeld said no charges were filed after Hussein was questioned for six hours.
“They took me from my house at eight in the morning, accusing me of incitement,” Hussein told Reuters. “I do not incite. I protect al-Aqsa mosque, and that is the nature of my work.”
The Palestinian Authority appoints the Grand Mufti in consultation with local religious leaders, but Jordan’s monarchy, which has long been a custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem, pays religious personnel’s salaries and contributes toward the upkeep of the shrines.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the arrest, calling it “a flagrant challenge to the freedom of worship”.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said it was a “grave escalation in Israel’s relentless violations of international law”.
Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour told parliament that Amman would convey through its ambassador in Tel Aviv “the kingdom’s rejection of the Israeli army and settlers’ recurring and increasing attacks on the holy al-Aqsa”, and accused Israel of “premeditated acts that spelt evil intent”.
Israel considers all of Jerusalem its capital, though its occupation of the east of the city has never been recognized internationally. The Palestinians say East Jerusalem must be the capital of their future state.
Officiating at a “Jerusalem Day” ceremony, Peres described Israel’s 1994 peace deal with Jordan as possible precedent for an accord with the Palestinians and inter-faith understanding.
“Jerusalem is dear to us. Peace with Jordan is dear to us. I want to say loudly and clearly that we respect all the holy sites of all religions and will do everything necessary to protect them as agreed between us,” Peres said.
Hussein, who has held his post since 2006, said it was the first time Israeli authorities had arrested and questioned him. Since 1967, at least one previous mufti had been detained by Israeli police, he said.
Rosenfeld said Tuesday’s confrontation began when Israeli police detained a Palestinian who wanted to enter the plaza but refused to present his identification card.
It developed into a scuffle in which Muslim worshippers threw chairs at Jewish visitors at the site, he added.
There were fresh confrontations on Wednesday between Muslims and Jews outside Jerusalem’s walled Old City, where al-Aqsa is located. Police arrested 18 Palestinians, Rosenfeld said. There were no casualties.
Al-Aqsa mosque is one of the most sensitive sites in the city. Muslims see it as one of their holiest places along with Mecca and Medina, believing the Prophet Mohammad ascended into heaven from the spot during a night journey to Jerusalem.
It is also the most sacred site in Judaism, with Jews revering it as the place where biblical King Solomon built the first temple 3,000 years ago. A second temple there was razed by the Romans in 70 AD.
The future status of Jerusalem is seen as one of the most difficult topics to be resolved in any negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Direct talks between the two sides broke down in 2010. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is seeking to revive the discussions and was due to meet Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni in Rome later on Wednesday.
Reporting by Ali Sawafta, Noah Browning, Ari Rabinovitch and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Jon Hemming and Mike Collett-White