JERUSALEM — Israeli police arrested on Wednesday the top Palestinian Muslim religious leader in Jerusalem but released him without charge after questioning him about a fracas between Palestinians and Israelis at al-Aqsa mosque.
Israel's rare move against Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, came a day after it celebrated the anniversary of its 1967 capture of East Jerusalem. Husseini's detention was widely condemned by Palestinian leaders as an infringement of religious freedom in the holy city.
Hussein serves under the Palestinian Authority which exercises limited rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank as well as neighboring Jordan, long a custodian over Jerusalem's Muslim holy places.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Hussein was arrested to answer questions about a “public disturbance” on Tuesday near al-Aqsa mosque, which overlooks Judaism's Western Wall.
The incident began, Rosenfeld said, when Israeli police detained a Palestinian who wanted to enter the plaza but refused to present his identification card.
It developed into a scuffle in which Muslim worshippers threw chairs at Jewish visitors at the site, he added.
Rosenfeld said Hussein was questioned for six hours and released without charge.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the detention, calling it “a flagrant challenge to the freedom of worship” and called for Hussein's immediate release. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said it was a “grave escalation in Israel's relentless violations of international law.”
Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war and considers all of the city its capital in a move that has never been recognized internationally. The Palestinians say East Jerusalem must be the capital of their future state.
Al-Aqsa mosque is one of the most sensitive sites in the city. Many Muslims see it as the third holiest place after Mecca and Medina, believing the Prophet Mohammad ascended into heaven from the spot during a night journey to Jerusalem.
It is also the most sacred site in Judaism, with Jews revering it as the place where biblical King Solomon built the first temple there 3,000 years ago. A second temple was razed by the Romans in 70 AD.
The future status of Jerusalem is seen as one of the most difficult topics to be resolved in any negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Direct talks between the two sides broke down in 2010. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is seeking to revive the discussions and was due to meet Israel's chief negotiator Tzipi Livni in Rome later on Wednesday.