JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli police firing stun grenades and tear gas clashed with rock-throwing Palestinians who barricaded themselves inside Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque on Tuesday, police and witnesses said, in the third day of violence at the sacred site.
Masked Palestinians hurled flares at the security forces, who said they were trying to secure the plaza outside Islam’s third holiest shrine to stop a Palestinian attempt to disrupt visits to the compound on Jewish New Year.
The White House said it was deeply concerned about the violence at the site, revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount and called on all sides to “exercise restraint and refrain from provocative actions and rhetoric”.
King Abdullah of Jordan said the Israeli actions were provocative and could imperil ties between the countries, state media reported on Tuesday, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the raid.
“If this continues to happen ... Jordan will have no choice but to take action,” King Abdullah, whose father King Hussein signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held an emergency ministerial meeting late on Tuesday, called after an Israeli motorist died in a crash police said was caused by suspected Palestinian stone-throwing.
A statement from his office said Netanyahu would seek “swift legislation to set mandatory minimum penalties for those who endanger human lives by throwing stones, fire-bombs and explosives.”
In July Israel’s parliament imposed tougher penalties of up to 20 years in prison for people throwing rocks at vehicles, though no such punishments have been reported since.
While violence in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem has not approached the levels of past Palestinian uprisings, there has been a surge of Palestinian stone-throwing, long a symbol of resistance to Israeli occupation.
Twenty-six Palestinians were lightly injured in Tuesday’s clashes, Director of the Palestinian Red Crescent emergency unit, Amin Abu Ghazaleh, said. Israeli police said five officers were lightly wounded and two Palestinians were arrested.
Palestinians fear that increasing visits by Jewish groups to the site, captured by Israel when it seized East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank from Jordan in a 1967 war, are eroding Muslim religious control there.
Palestinian Presidency spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeinah said Abbas and King Abdullah had discussed the events by phone. “(Israel’s) religious war will drag the region into endless fighting,” he said.
Jewish ultra-nationalists have been pushing the Israeli government to allow Jewish prayer on the compound outside al-Aqsa, which stands above Judaism’s sacred Western Wall.
Such worship, certain to stir Muslim anger, has been banned on the plaza by Israel since 1967 and Netanyahu has said he would not allow any change.
Clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian youths last erupted outside al-Aqsa in July, on the annual Jewish day of mourning for Jerusalem’s two destroyed Biblical temples, and last October as Muslim anger mounted at the presence of Jewish worshippers at the site over Jewish holidays.
In 2000 Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s opposition leader, visited the compound. That enraged Palestinians and led to an uprising, or Intifada, that continued for five years and left about 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis dead.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel in a move not recognized internationally, as the capital of a state they aspire to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its indivisible and eternal capital. Peace talks collapsed in 2014.
Reporting by Ammar Awad, Maayan Lubell and Ali Sawafta; Additional reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Janet Lawrence