Jerusalem Mayor visits Al-Aqsa mosque prompting anger
JERUSALEM - Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat visited the Al-Aqsa mosque compound Tuesday, his office said, prompting criticism from the site's Muslim authorities following weeks of tension at the flashpoint shrine.
The early morning visit, which saw Barkat touring the compound with a group of police, followed weeks of intermittent clashes triggered by reports Israel was mulling a change in the status quo to allow Jewish prayer at the sprawling site inside the Old City.
Barkat "visited the Temple Mount together with the chief of police responsible for the area to assess the current situation and gain a deeper understanding of the issues and challenges at the site," a statement said, using the Israeli term for the compound.
The Islamic Waqf body that oversees the site "rejected" the visit, saying it had not been coordinated.
The visit was "merely for publicity and its political nature is characteristic of" Barkat, Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Waqf, said.
In a statement, the Al-Aqsa Foundation condemned what it described as the "storming" of the compound by Barkat.
"This does not give any legitimacy to considering Al-Aqsa part of the jurisdiction of the (west) Jerusalem (Israeli) municipality, and does not erase the eternal Islamic character of the mosque," said the foundation, an offshoot of a radical branch of Israel's Islamic Movement religious advocacy group.
Tensions often erupt at the site, which is both the third-holiest location in Islam and the most sacred place in Judaism.
A provocative visit by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the compound in 2000 sparked the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada, a five-year uprising that left hundreds dead.
- Tensions running high -
Non-Muslim visits are permitted and regulated by police, but Jews are not allowed to pray there for fear it could trigger major disturbances, nor do they enter the mosques.
Visits by religious nationalist Israelis tend to trigger clashes between stone-throwing youths and police, as well as complaints from Jordan which oversees Muslim heritage sites in Jerusalem.
Palestinians fear such visits are an attempt to usurp the site and in recent months clashes there have multiplied, prompting a police vow to crack down.
Tuesday's visit, which came a day after Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah also toured the site, passed off without incident, police said.
Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reassured Jordan that Israel was not seeking to change the status quo at the compound.
Rumours of an attempted Israeli change were sparked by a draft bill put together by a hardliner from Netanyahu's rightwing Likud party that seeks to extend visiting hours for Jews.
Earlier this month, president Mahmud Abbas urged Palestinians to prevent "settlers" -- a euphemism for nationalist Israeli Jews -- from visiting the Al-Aqsa compound "by all means", following a series of clashes at the site.
He has also pledged to seek international legal measures to prevent such provocative visits.
Jerusalem's annexed Arab eastern sector has been the site of near-nightly clashes since the murder of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists in July, which intensified during the 50-day Gaza war over the summer.
Clashes again intensified last week after a Palestinian from Silwan drove his car into Jerusalem pedestrians, killing an infant and a young woman. He was shot dead by police while trying to flee the scene.
But police spokeswoman Luba Samri said that Monday night had passed quietly.