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Palestinians, Israeli Forces Clash Amid Holy Site Tensions

Palestinian demonstrators take cover during clashes with Israeli troops near Ramallah, West Bank, Sept. 29, 2015.
Palestinian demonstrators take cover during clashes with Israeli troops near Ramallah, West Bank, Sept. 29, 2015.

Palestinian demonstrators clashed with Israeli troops across the West Bank on Tuesday, while three tourists were lightly wounded by Palestinian stone throwers as tensions remained high following days of violence at Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site.

The hilltop compound, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, was largely quiet Tuesday. About 600 tourists and 100 Israelis visited the site without serious incident. Israel has barred Muslim men under the age of 50 from entering the compound in recent days in a move it says is aimed at easing tensions.

The site has experienced repeated clashes over the past two weeks as Palestinian protesters barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque while hurling stones, firebombs and fireworks at Israeli police outside.

The compound in Jerusalem's Old City is a frequent flashpoint and its fate is a core issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war, as their future capital.

The compound is sacred to Muslims, who refer to it as Noble Sanctuary, the place where they believe Islam's Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

The compound is also where the two biblical Jewish Temples stood, and is Judaism's holiest site. Under a longstanding arrangement, Jews are allowed to visit but not pray there.

The Palestinians view such visits as provocations, and rumors have spread that Jews are planning on taking over the site, fueling the recent clashes. Israel says there are no plans to change the arrangements. But calls by a group of religious Jews to visit the site, coupled with periodic Israeli restrictions on Muslim visits, have inflamed tensions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is committed to maintaining the status quo at the site and that it is the Palestinians who are breaching the fragile agreement there.

"Israel wants peace with the Palestinian people that unfortunately continue to spread crass lies about our policy on the Temple Mount. I will demand an end to this wild incitement,'' Netanyahu said before leaving for the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement meanwhile staged a series of protests in the West Bank on Tuesday.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, about 300 protesters affiliated with Fatah marched toward the nearby Israeli settlement of Bet El. The military said "rioters threw rocks at passing vehicles and at forces that arrived at the scene.'' Forces used tear gas, stun grenades and fired rubber and low-caliber bullets at the legs of "main instigators,'' it said. At least six Palestinian suffered leg injuries.

In Bethlehem, protesters threw rocks and firebombs, wounding a paramilitary border police officer, it said.

Fatah officials said Tuesday's demonstrations were meant to protest Israeli actions at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

The clashes occurred a day before Abbas is to address the U.N. General Assembly. With the plight of the Palestinians overshadowed this year by the civil war in Syria and the migrant crisis in Europe, Tuesday's unrest appeared to be an attempt to draw attention back to the conflict.

The protests also appeared to be a veiled warning to Israel.

Despite cool relations, Israel and the Palestinians have maintained close security cooperation to help ease tensions on the ground. But on Tuesday, Palestinian police left their posts and did not prevent marchers from approaching Israeli military checkpoints. In some cases, Palestinian security men even joined the protesters in throwing rocks.

"We can change the security commitments ... and implement only what is good for our people,'' Fatah official Hana Amira told the Voice of Palestine radio station.

The unrest comes during the weeklong Jewish festival of Sukkot that celebrates the fall harvest and commemorates the wandering of the ancient Israelites through the desert following their exodus from Egypt. In ancient times, Jews made pilgrimages to Jerusalem on Sukkot, and many Jews are visiting the city this week.

On Tuesday, Palestinians hurled stones at a taxi just outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, lightly wounding two American tourists, police said. In the West Bank city of Hebron, Israeli TV showed a young female tourist holding her head as she was treated by medics and soldiers after she was hit by a rock thrown by Palestinians.

Overnight, Israeli police arrested seven Palestinians it said were involved in the recent violence.