For the first time in weeks, Israel lifted age restrictions for Muslim men wanting to pray at a holy site in the walled Old City, and Friday prayers passed peacefully, raising hopes for a cooling of tensions in the wake of a visit to the region by Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
Low-level clashes persisted, however, in several parts of the West Bank.
At talks Thursday in neighboring Jordan – the custodian of the contested site – Kerry said all parties agreed that there would be no change in the “status quo” governing access to the plateau known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
It was too early to say, however, whether unspecified calming measures agreed to by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians would prove durable. Jerusalem’s traditionally Arab eastern sector has been torn for weeks by street clashes protesting a greater Jewish presence in the part of the city that Palestinians claim as the capital of their future state.
A greater trigger for violence, however, was the fear on Palestinians’ part that Israel would change a nearly 50-year-old provision against Jewish prayers on the mount. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said no such change was envisioned, but did not move to rein in members of his Cabinet who called for an overturning of the ban.
In Jerusalem, Israeli police said about 40,000 people attended Friday noon prayers, the most important of the Muslim week, at the hilltop Al Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. In previous weeks, Israeli authorities had barred Muslim men either under 50 or sometimes under 35 from praying at the site on Fridays, leading to furious resentment that often boiled over into street riots.
“Let’s hope we don’t have more clashing, more killing,” said Mohammed Arraf, a merchant whose clothing store in Jerusalem's Old City sits close to one of the entrances to the holy site.
At the Kalandia checkpoint north of Jerusalem, Israeli troops fired stun grenades to dissipate protesters. Some youths clambered over the separation wall built by Israel in portions of the West Bank, using wooden planks to scale it.
Other potential problems loomed as Israel vowed to resume a largely abandoned practice of demolishing the homes of those involved in assaults against Israelis, especially fatal ones such as two stabbings that occurred Monday and two vehicular attacks in the past month. Several Palestinian families have been given notice of pending demolitions.
The Obama administration and other Western governments view such home demolitions as a threat to efforts to restart the peace process. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday that punitive demolitions are “counterproductive to the cause of peace and exacerbate an already tense situation.”
Sobelman is a special correspondent.
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