JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli police stormed a sensitive Jerusalem holy site Tuesday to disperse a violent protest there, hours before the Israeli parliament was to debate a nationalist lawmaker's motion to extend control over it.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said about 20 masked Palestinian youths hurled stones and firecrackers at troops from atop the Temple Mount. Police then entered the compound and arrested three people. He said two police officers were lightly wounded.
The site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, is ground zero in the territorial and religious conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Clashes often erupt after Muslims conclude their prayers. Jews typically pray below at the Western Wall but tensions have grown lately with an increased number of Jews arriving to pray at the Temple Mount as well.
Revered as Islam's third holiest spot, the site's iconic gold-topped Dome of the Rock enshrines the rock where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven. Jews believe the rock may be where the holiest part of the two ancient temples stood about 2,000 years ago — and where religious Jews pray a third temple will one day be built.
The site is so holy that Jews have traditionally refrained from praying on the hilltop, but attitudes among some Orthodox Jews have been evolving and there has been growing demand to allow Jews to pray there freely as well.
Nationalist lawmaker Moshe Feiglin of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party has been leading the charge. Feiglin initiated Tuesday's parliamentary discussion in which he is to suggest extending Israeli control over the Temple Mount. Such a measure has little chance of passing.
Azzam Khatib, director general of the Waqf, Jordan's Islamic authority that currently manages religious affairs at site, said the clash followed rumors that Jewish extremists were planning on entering the compound and raising the Israeli flag. He said the entire compound was Muslim and they would not allow anyone to change that situation.
"I hope they have some rational people in the government to stop them from provoking us," he said.
The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem, and the Old City, as the capital of their future state. The status of the site remains perhaps the most sensitive and explosive issue in U.S.-brokered peace talks. Netanyahu's office strongly rejects Feiglin's initiative believing any change to the status quo could spark violence and unsettle the talks.
Mickey Levy, Israel's deputy finance minister and a former commander of the Jerusalem District Police, called the site "a keg of dynamite" and urged restraint.
Zehava Galon, head of the dovish Meretz Party, said Tuesday's riot was a direct result of Feiglin's "religious provocation." She said her party recognized the right to free worship at holy sites, but not every right had to be realized and at this time doing so would merely enflame the region.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' office also issued a statement condemning what it called "continuous Israeli incursions" into the site.
"Such assaults are not only a danger to holy places but also creates an atmosphere that will increase violence and hatred and convert the conflict into a dangerous religious conflict," it said.