Israel lifts Muslim age limit at Jerusalem shrine
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) - Muslim prayers at a major Jerusalem shrine, the epicenter of weeks of unrest, ended peacefully Friday after Israel lifted restrictions on worshippers in an apparent bid to ease tensions.
Meanwhile, violence continued in the West Bank where Palestinians threw a firebomb at an Israeli car, wounding a mother and her two children. An Israeli news site said one of the children, a 4-year-old girl, was badly burned.
The decision to allow Muslims of all ages to pray at the site coincided with a diplomatic push by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to restore calm. This includes getting all sides to agree on the ground rules at the Muslim-run shrine and prevent future tensions.
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 Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who just returned from talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, said that "despite the anger and the polarization, there is still time to step back from the brink."
In Vienna, the Quartet of Mideast mediators — the U.S., U.N., European Union and Russia— issued a statement calling on Israel and the Palestinian leadership to show "maximum restraint and avoidance of provocative rhetoric and actions." Quartet envoys will travel to the region soon.
The Quartet statement was released after a meeting of high-ranking members on the sidelines of Syria talks. It said calm is needed to "restore confidence and hope in the viability of a negotiated two-state solution" between Israel and the Palestinians, ending "the occupation that began in 1967" and resolving the status of Jerusalem.
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.
On Friday, Palestinians threw a firebomb at a passing Israeli car, wounding a woman and her two children in the West Bank, the Israeli military said. The Haaretz daily said a 4-year-old girl sustained burns on 35 percent of her body while her sister and mother were lightly wounded.
The attack came after 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.
Earlier, confrontations erupted on the Israel-Gaza border, with hundreds of Palestinians throwing stones and rolling burning tires toward the border fence, the military said. Several dozen then rushed toward the fence and tried to damage it, the army said.
Two Palestinians were wounded by army fire, Gaza health officials said. The military said soldiers initially fired warning shots.
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 Jews 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 fueled by a rise in visits to the shrine by Jewish activists demanding prayer rights, including senior members of 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 Friday that age restrictions were lifted after security assessments.
Meanwhile, barriers and checkpoints that Israel set up last week on the outskirts of Arab neighborhoods of the city remain in place.
Israel's Cabinet had approved the movement restrictions to try to stem a wave of recent stabbings. Many of the attackers come from traditionally Arab east Jerusalem, seized by Israel in the 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally.
The barriers had caused traffic jams and severely disrupted the daily lives of many of the city's more than 300,000 Palestinian residents, prompting complaints of collective punishment. On Friday, lines were much shorter and most cars drove through checkpoints without being stopped.
According to U.N. figures released Friday, Israel set up 38 obstacles, including 17 manned checkpoints, 20 road barriers and one earth mound in nine neighborhoods. The count was conducted Wednesday, the U.N. said.
Rosenfeld said several obstacles have been removed, mentioning an easing of restrictions in at least two neighborhoods, but did not give figures.
Also Friday, video footage emerged showing a masked man, presumed to be an Israeli extremist, attack an Israeli rights activist with a knife in the West Bank.
The man threatened Rabbi Arik Ascherman of the Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights, pulled out a knife then made stabbing gestures with it. The masked man kicked and wrestled Ascherman to the ground before running away.
Ascherman told Channel 2 TV that "One of the masked Israelis ran toward me with big stones, started to throw stones and pulled out a knife. After a short struggle he ran away."
According to the station, the rights group was helping Palestinians harvest olives in the northern West Bank when harassed by Israeli extremists. Police were investigating.
Separately, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem released security camera footage showing several Israeli soldiers beating and kicking a Palestinian man for several minutes as he lies on the ground.
It begins with the man carrying a box into a storage room and then standing at the door, looking outside. Soldiers rush toward him, beat and kick him while he lies on the ground, then drag him outside.
It's not clear what happened before the footage begins.
B'Tselem said the incident took place Oct. 6 in the West Bank town of el-Bireh
Ansar Aasi, 25, the man in the video, said Friday he wasn't involved in violence. He said forces raided the factory where he works after about a dozen Palestinians threw rocks at soldiers nearby.
"I raised my hand and told them I didn't do anything but they beat me everywhere," Aasi told The Associated Press. He said he was detained for five days and only released after his employer showed police the CCTV footage.
Israel's military said it was investigating but the initial inquiry into the footage showed soldiers "did not act in accordance to the standards."