World

Israel lifts Muslim age limit for entry to Jerusalem holy site

For the first time in weeks of escalating violence, Israel is allowing Muslims of all ages to enter Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site to perform prayers in an apparent bid to ease tensions.

Friday prayers end peacefully outside Dome of the Rock as worshippers of all ages once again let in

Worshippers pray outside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem on Friday after Israel lifted age restrictions on Muslims seeking to access the area, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty)

For the first time in weeks of escalating violence, Israel allowed Muslims of all ages to enter Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site to perform Friday prayers in an apparent bid to ease tensions.

Earlier Friday, a Palestinian stabbed a soldier in the West Bank and was shot by troops, Israel's military said. The soldier and the Palestinian — a 16-year-old, according to Israeli media reports — were wounded and evacuated to hospitals.

It was the latest incident in a round of violence that began in mid-September.

Ten Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks, mostly stabbings. Forty-eight Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, including 27 said by Israel to be attackers and the rest in clashes.

Tension around the Jerusalem shrine, a 15-hectare hilltop platform revered by both Muslims and Jews, has been one of the triggers of the current violence.

Widespread Palestinian perceptions that Israel is trying to expand its presence at the Muslim-run site have led to clashes there that quickly spread to other parts of Jerusalem, as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel has repeatedly denied it is trying to change long-standing understandings under which Jews are allowed to visit, but not pray at the shrine. Israel has accused Palestinian political and religious leaders of lying and inciting violence.

Palestinians say their fears have been fuelled by a rise in visits to the shrine by Jewish activists demanding prayer rights, including senior members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government.

Core issue in conflict

Netanyahu met Thursday in Berlin with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to find ways to ease tensions over the holy site. Kerry is also expected to hold talks in Jordan this weekend with King Abdullah II, the custodian of the site, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The hilltop compound is a frequent flashpoint and its fate is a core issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is the holiest site in Judaism, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, once home to their biblical Temples.

Muslims call it the Noble Sanctuary and believe it is the spot where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. It is the third-holiest site in Islam and houses the Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques.

Muslim prayers at the site ended peacefully on Friday. It was the first time since violence erupted in mid-September that Muslims of all ages could attend the weekly Friday prayers. 

Over the past few weeks, Israel had barred younger Muslims — seen by police as the main potential trouble-makers — from entering the compound.

Muslims view age restrictions as part of the perceived Israeli attempt to step up its control.

Friday's lifting of age restrictions appeared to be part of an Israeli attempt to ease tensions. Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Friday that age restrictions were lifted after security assessments.

Footage of beating released

Also on Friday, an Israeli human rights group released security camera footage showing several Israeli soldiers beating and kicking a Palestinian man for several minutes as he lies curled up in a defensive position on the floor of a storage room.

Israel's military said it is looking into the incident.

Several Israeli soldiers beat and kick a man as he lies curled up in a defensive position on the floor of a storage room in a video released Friday by the Israeli NGO B'Tselem. (B'Tselem/YouTube)

The group B'Tselem said the footage is of an Oct. 6 incident in the West Bank town of el-Bireh. The group says 25-year-old Ansar Aasi was at work in the storage room when clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers erupted nearby.

The video begins with him carrying a box into the storage room. He is then seen standing at the door, looking outside. Suddenly, Israel soldiers rush toward him, beat him repeatedly and drag him outside.

B'Tselem says Aasi required medical treatment and was detained for five days after soldiers alleged he had thrown stones. The group says he was only released after police viewed the security camera footage.

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