JERUSALEM (AP) — Hundreds of angry Islamic worshippers threw stones and scuffled with police on Friday in an eruption of outrage over contentious Israeli renovation work at a disputed Old City holy site.
About 200 police streamed on to the hilltop compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, to try to quell the violence, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Witnesses said police hurled stun grenades.
Several dozen protesters barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa mosque at the compound, which is Islam’s third-holiest site. The protesters are angry about Israeli repair work on an earthen ramp leading to the hilltop compound, which they fear will damage the mosque.
Police said several protesters and several officers were injured in the faceoff, but gave no further details.
The clashes erupted at the end of Friday prayers at the site. Police had braced for possible riots during the prayers, which often have been a flashpoint for clashes.
Israeli security forces tripled their usual numbers around the Old City Friday morning, expecting confrontations. Jerusalem police chief Ilan Franco told Israel Radio that around 3,000 security officers were posted around the city because of “intelligence indications” that disturbances could erupt.
If Islam is, as the claim goes, a ‘religion of peace,’ Muslims should protest such behavior.
Friday prayers at the site and is attended by thousands of Muslims every week. The compound sits just above the Western Wall, a remnant the second Jewish temple.
Israeli authorities promised that the plan to replace a centuries-old ramp damaged in a 2004 snowstorm would not damage the compound, about 60 yards way. But when work began earlier this week, it drew fierce protests in the Arab world, where many leaders accused Israel of plotting to harm Muslim holy sites.
On Thursday, a fiery Islamic leader appealed to fellow Israeli Arabs and Muslims around the world to rise up against the Israeli renovations.
“The aggression happening now is a tragedy, a crime,” Raed Salah, a leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, told The Associated Press. He accused Israel of declaring “a regional, religious war.”
Israeli officials have said Muslim extremists are using the renovation work as a pretext to stoke anger against Israel. Speaking during a visit to Spain Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni accused “political extremists” of trying to “exploit this situation.”
On Friday, though, a prominent Israeli archeologist weighed in against the project.
Meir Ben-Dov, who has led excavations near the Temple Mount, said the existing ramp should be renovated rather than replaced. The government, he added, lacked the proper construction permits.
“There is no reason to take any action there,” Ben-Dov told Israel Radio.
An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the construction project, rejected Ben-Dov’s claim, saying “all legal issues are being addressed.” The new ramp was needed because the old one is unsafe, the official said.
The compound, home to the golden-capped Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa mosque, is the third-holiest site for Muslims, who believe that it is where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. For Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, it is also a focal point of national pride.
The compound is sacred to Jews as the site of their biblical temples.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said entrance to the Friday prayers would be restricted. West Bank Palestinians would be barred, as would Israeli Arab and east Jerusalem men under 45, he said.
Israel has controlled the compound since the 1967 Mideast War, but has left the administration of its Muslim holy sites largely to the Palestinians and Jordan.
On Thursday, U.N. ambassadors from the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference called on the U.N. Security Council “to take immediate and urgent action in order to bring an end to Israeli intransigence and violations against the blessed Al Aqsa mosque.”
UNESCO issued a statement calling on Israel “to suspend any action that could endanger the spirit of mutual respect until such time as the will to dialogue prevails once again.”
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