AFP — Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Sunday that Israel was “committed” to the status quo that prevents Jews praying at Jerusalem’s flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the epicentre of repeated clashes.
His comments follow violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories that has killed 38 people since late March, with tensions further fuelled by the clashes in Jerusalem and consequent exchanges of fire between Israel and Gaza.
“Muslims pray on the Temple Mount, non-Muslims only visit,” Lapid said, using the Jewish term for the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, the holiest place in Judaism and the third-holiest in Islam.
Palestinian Muslims have been angered by an uptick in Jewish visits to the Al-Aqsa compound, where by long-standing convention Jews may visit but are not allowed to pray.
“There is no change, there will be no change — we have no plans to divide the Temple Mount between religions,” Lapid told journalists.
Palestinian protestors have repeatedly clashed with Israeli riot police at the Al-Aqsa compound since the middle of the month, leaving hundreds injured as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan coincided with Jewish Passover.
Attacks by Palestinians and Israeli Arabs have since late March killed 14 people in Israel, while 24 Palestinians have died, including perpetrators of attacks and also in raids by Israeli security forces in the occupied West Bank.
Palestinian officials and militants have repeatedly accused Israel of seeking to divide Al-Aqsa into Jewish and Muslim sections or visiting times, as with another sensitive holy site in nearby Hebron.
They have voiced anger at repeated incursions by Israeli security forces into the mosque compound.
But Lapid blamed renewed tensions at the site on “terrorists” trying to incite violence.
“Terrorist organisations have been trying to hijack the Al-Aqsa Mosque in order to create an outbreak of violence in Jerusalem and from there a violent conflict across the country,” he said.
He accused Islamist group Hamas — which runs the Palestinian enclave of Gaza — and Islamic Jihad of sending “extremists” with weapons and explosives to use the Al-Aqsa compound “as a base to incite violent riots”.
“They have done this to create a provocation, to force the Israeli police to enter the mosque and remove them,” he said. “The only reason police have entered the mosque in recent weeks is to remove them.”
Lapid also said Israel was committed to letting Muslims pray at the site, noting that hundreds of thousands had done so throughout Ramadan.
The clashes in east Jerusalem had sparked fears of another armed conflict similar to an 11-day war last year between Israel and Hamas.
Israel said Saturday it would close its only crossing from the Gaza Strip for Palestinian workers in response to overnight rocket fire from the besieged territory, but this time stopped short of carrying out retaliatory strikes.
Days earlier, Israel had hit Gaza with air strikes following incoming rocket fire — its standard retaliation against such fire.
Analyst Ofer Zalzberg said Palestinians had been angered by reports on social media that Israel had decided to divide the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
“The fear is there and it is very important… whether it is true or not,” said Zalzberg, Middle East head at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute. “We also have to ask ourselves why they have this perception and what could have prevented that.”
He said Hamas was divided between its leadership in Gaza, who want to stay out of the escalation after being pounded by Israeli strikes during last year’s war, and those who see the tensions at Al-Aqsa as an “ideological opportunity”.
The latter group “don’t think the whole strategy should be about Gaza — that they should make progress with the West Bank and Jerusalem,” he said. By Guillaume Lavallee and Paul Raymond