Israel lifts Al-Aqsa age limits as diplomatic drive quickens
October 23 2015 05:23 PM

Israeli police scuffle with a Palestinian man at the Damascus Gate at the entrance of the Old City in east Jerusalem before the Friday prayer. AFP


Israel lifted age restrictions for the main weekly prayers at Jerusalem's flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound Friday, in an apparent bid to ease tensions over the site that sparked a surge in Israeli-Palestinian violence.
While thousands of Muslims prayed without incident at the ultra-sensitive esplanade, clashes erupted in the occupied West Bank cities of Hebron and Ramallah where young Palestinians lobbed stones at Israeli soldiers who hit back with volleys of tear gas, according to AFP journalists.
At least two Palestinians were wounded by Israeli gunfire.
Palestinian movements had called for a "day of rage" against Israel, as the international community scrambles to defuse a wave of violence that many fear heralds a third Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
The Middle East peacemaking Quartet -- US Secretary of State John Kerry, his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and UN chief Ban Ki-moon -- were to hold talks on the escalating violence later Friday.
Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Islamic Waqf which administers Al-Aqsa, said around 25,000 Muslims attended Friday prayers after age restrictions were lifted for the first time since mid-September, when clashes broke out at the site between Palestinians and Israeli police.  
Israeli police estimated the crowd at 30,000.
In Jerusalem's Old City, last week swarming with Israeli police carrying out checks on almost all worshippers and blocking anyone under 40 from entering the esplanade, there were only two checkpoints.
"Of course it is better but there are still checkpoints and searches. There is still no respect," said Wissam Abu Madi, 20, who said he believed a wave of attacks on Israelis would continue.
"Everyone is scared that if you get searched and (they think) you make a wrong move, you will get shot. It is a terrible situation."
Lone-wolf attacks

The Al-Aqsa mosque compound is one of the key sources of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians as it is both the third-holiest site for Muslims and the holiest site for Jews, who call it the Temple Mount.
A visit by former prime minister Ariel Sharon - then opposition leader -- in 2000 sparked the second intifada which lasted until 2005 and left nearly 4,700 dead.
To avoid tensions Jews are allowed to visit but not pray at the site located in east Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel in 1967.
It is managed by the Jordanian-run Waqf but Israel controls access.
Clashes erupted over the Jewish religious holidays last month as an increase in visits by Jews to the compound raised fears among Muslims that Israel was planning to change the longstanding rules governing the site.
The protests at Al-Aqsa triggered a wave of lone-wolf knife attacks, shootings and car-rammings against Israelis.
In the latest attack Friday a Palestinian stabbed and lightly wounded a soldier in the occupied West Bank and was shot and wounded by Israeli forces.
A military spokeswoman told AFP the soldier was a Bedouin tracker who had opened a gate to enable Palestinians to harvest their olive trees.
Since October 1, at least 49 Palestinians and one Israeli Arab have been killed in clashes with Israeli police or while carrying out attacks.
Eight Israelis have been killed in attacks.
One Israeli Jew and one Eritrean have also been killed after being mistaken for attackers.
'There is no work'

The recent unrest is led by a new generation of young Palestinians frustrated with life under Israeli occupation and a stalemate in peace efforts, who no longer see their leaders as capable of improving their lot.
Mohammed, 29, who was attending prayers at Al-Aqsa, laid the blame on the Israelis.
"They are responsible because there is no work. If there was work, if people had money, they wouldn't do anything."
The international community has launched a flurry of diplomatic activity in a bid to calm the latest round of violence in one of the oldest conflicts on earth.
US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday expressed "cautious optimism" after four hours of talks in Berlin with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Kerry voiced hope that "we can seize this moment and pull back from the precipice".
He was due to meet Lavrov and Mogherini on the crisis on Friday in Vienna, joined by Ban via video link from New York.
Netanyahu has repeatedly accused Abbas of fanning the flames by suggesting Israel wants to change the status quo at the compound under which Jews are allowed to visit but not pray.
The Israeli leader has insisted he has no intention of changing the rules.

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