Ultra-nationalist Jews' visit stokes Palestinian anger

JERUSALEM: Tens of thousands of flag-waving Israelis marched through Jerusalem yesterday to mark their country's capture of the city's east in a 1967 war with tensions heightened due to the holiday coinciding with the final days of Ramadan. The march, with a large contingent of Jewish religious nationalists, included passing under heavy security through the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem's Old City in what Palestinian see as a provocation.

Some 3,000 police were deployed, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. "We came to celebrate the day," said Rina Ben Shimol, who came with her husband and their three young children from their home in Kfar Tavor in northern Israel. "It is Zionism and it's to strengthen the link with our origins and with the country." Earlier in the day, Palestinian worshippers clashed with Israeli police at a highly sensitive Jerusalem holy site, also located in the Old City in mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem.

Muslim worshippers at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound were angered over Jewish visits to the site holy to both religions in the final days of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. According to police, protesters barricaded themselves in the mosque, from where they threw chairs and stones at forces who "dispersed" them. The Muslim Waqf organization which oversees the site said police used rubber bullets and pepper spray, adding that seven people were arrested and 45 were wounded.

It said police shut the mosque's doors and chained them. After the clashes, police spokesman Rosenfeld said calm had returned and visits continued. Al-Aqsa mosque director Omar Al-Kiswani accused Israel of violating an agreement not to allow such visits during the last days of Ramadan. He said around 1,200 Jews visited the site yesterday, while a Jewish organization that arranges visits there reported a similar number.

The clashes took place as Israelis marked Jerusalem Day, which commemorates the country's capture of the city's eastern sector in the 1967 Six-Day War. Unusually, this year's holiday coincided with the final days of Ramadan. The status of the Al-Aqsa compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, is one of the most sensitive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest for Muslims after Makkah and Medina.

JERUSALEM: A member of the Israeli security forces gestures at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem yesterday, as clashes broke out while Israelis marked Jerusalem Day, which commemorates the country's capture of the city's mainly Palestinian eastern sector in the 1967 Six-Day War. - AFP

'Flagrant violations'
Yesterday's visit was the first time since Tuesday that Jews were allowed into the holy site, according to activists. Jews are allowed to visit the site during set hours but not pray there to avoid provoking tensions. Jewish visits to the site, particularly by religious nationalists, usually increase for Jerusalem Day. Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said his policy was to do everything possible to keep the site open to visits, especially for Jerusalem Day.

He said preparations to avoid serious unrest included arrests based on intelligence in addition those in connection with the clashes. Jordan, the custodian of the holy site and one of only two Arab countries with a peace treaty with Israel, condemned what it said was Israel's "flagrant violations" there, calling the visits "provocative intrusions by extremists." Such actions risked setting off violence in the region, a statement from Jordan's foreign ministry said.

Jerusalem Day march culminates in celebrations at the Western Wall, which is below the Al-Aqsa compound. The wall is the holiest site where Jews can pray. Following its seizure in 1967, east Jerusalem was annexed by Israel in a move never recognized by the international community. Israel proclaims the entire city as its united capital, while the Palestinians see the city's eastern sector as the capital of their future state.- AFP