JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli police came under a barrage of rocks and flares from Palestinians in clashes in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound, the third holiest shrine in Islam, on Monday and four protesters were arrested.
The site in Jerusalem’s walled Old City has seen repeated disturbances over the years over what Palestinians say are fears of an Israeli threat to the site, which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary. Israel denies any such threat. Jews also revere the site as the location of two destroyed biblical temples.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said officers went to the elevated compound, also known as Temple Mount by Jews, after receiving information that protesters had planned to start a riot and disrupt visits there.
“(Officers) surprised the rioters, pushing them back and found petrol bombs, rocks, stones, bottles at the scene that would have been used to attack visitors ... It was a police initiative to prevent disturbances,” Rosenfeld said.
Palestinians holed up in the mosque threw projectiles at police with riot shields outside as they removed a makeshift obstruction of barbed wire and planks before sealing off the building with the protesters inside, police video showed.
Tensions subsided later in the day and several protesters remained inside the 11th-century, grey-domed mosque as night fell, fearing they would be identified and arrested if they exited, a police spokeswoman said.
There were no reports of injuries or other incidents, and no specific reason was given for the protest.
Palestinians have long been wary of visits by non-Muslims to the compound and while tourists do visit periodically, Israel bars orthodox Jews from praying there for fear of exacerbating tensions.
The compound, which includes the 7th-century, golden-hued Dome of the Rock, overlooks Jerusalem’s Western Wall, revered by Jews as a remnant of Herod’s Second Temple.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied on Monday that there were any moves afoot to restrict Muslims’ access to the compound and blamed “Palestinian extremists” for the violence.
“Palestinian extremists (are) instigating violence through incitement ..., false and baseless rumours that (Israel is) threatening the Muslim holy places and nothing could be further from the truth,” he said after meeting United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Jerusalem.
“I am committed and Israel is committed to maintaining the status quo exactly as it has been for many decades.”
A visit in 2000 to the site by then-Israeli right-wing opposition leader Ariel Sharon after U.S.-brokered peace talks broke down was followed by a five-year-long Palestinian uprising.
(This story has been refiled to make editorial changes in paragraph two)
Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Mark Heinrich