AMMAN: A Friday morning exchange of fire in and around Jerusalem’s Haram Al-Sharif has escalated tensions in the Old City.
The exchange of fire at 7 a.m. left three Palestinian citizens of Israel and two Israeli border policemen dead, and led to Israeli authorities barring Muslim Friday prayers for the first time since 1969.
Since the exchange, the city gates have been closed and no one is allowed in or out, including Christian clergy and residents of the Old City.
According to Israeli officials, three Palestinian-Israelis from the northern town of Um Al-Fahm opened fire at security guards, injuring three, two of whom later died.
The guards were from the minority Druze population. Unlike Palestinian Muslims and Christians, Druze are conscripted, as are Israeli Jews.
Khalil Assali, publisher of the akhbarelbalad.net website, which specializes in East Jerusalem issues, told Arab News that the situation there has been deteriorating for some time due to settlers and right-wing activists under the watch of Israeli police.
“They’re becoming more and more rowdy and provocative, and in recent days they were even praying on the steps of Al-Aqsa,” said Assali, who lost his father in the 1967 war.
Ismael Habash, the chief Islamic judge in the Palestinian government and a close confidante of President Mahmoud Abbas, said Israel’s barring of prayers at Islam’s third-holiest site is pushing the entire region into a religious war.
Speaking on Palestine TV, Habash said: “We oppose any kind of religious war. Whatever happened shouldn’t be used as an excuse to prevent people from access to and worshipping in their holy site.”
Ofer Salzberg, a senior analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, told Arab News that the situation in Al-Aqsa has been deteriorating for the past few months.
“Temple Mount activists have become more emboldened, and the police attitude toward the Jewish activists has become more cooperative and generous,” he said.
Salzberg added that Jewish activists have been allowed in the mosque compound in larger numbers.
“Perhaps the most obvious violation occurred on June 29, when the chief of the Jerusalem district police, Yoram Halevi, joined 150 activists in the mosque area,” he said.
“The police chief took photos with the activists and allowed a cohen (Jewish priest) to make a benediction to him and to the others.”
Salzberg said this was filmed and appeared in Palestinian media, and signals that Israeli police are not neutral.
“Israel and the Jerusalem police, in particular, are complicit in violating the ban on non-Muslim worship on the holy esplanade,” he added.
Salzberg said he believes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “won’t allow things to get worse because of Israeli relations with Jordan’s King Abdallah and the delicate cease-fire in southern Syria.”
Jordanian government spokesman Mohammed Momani called for the “right of Muslims to pray freely and without any obstruction.”