Israel and Jordan work to calm tensions at Jerusalem holy site

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JERUSALEM (AP) – Looking to reduce tensions at a Jerusalem holy site that set off weeks of Mideast violence, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced Saturday that Israel and Jordan had agreed on steps, including round-the-clock video monitoring, to bring an end to the unrest.

But the announcement contained few details on how the monitoring system would work, and it was not immediately clear whether it would be enough to calm the unrest that has raised fears that the region is on the brink of a new round of heavy fighting.

Late Saturday, Israel said it welcomed “increased coordination” with the Jordanians. There was no immediate Palestinian reaction.

Kerry had spent several days holding talks with Israeli and Arab leaders, capping his efforts with meetings Saturday with the Palestinians and Jordan. Kerry said King Abdullah II of Jordan suggested the monitoring and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted.

“All the violence and the incitement to violence must stop. Leaders must lead,” Kerry told reporters in the Jordanian capital after meeting with the king and with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Clashes erupted at the holy site last month over rumors that Israel was expanding its presence at the sensitive Jerusalem shrine, revered by both Muslims and Jews.

The violence quickly spread across Israel, and into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the past five weeks, 10 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks, mostly stabbings, while 49 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, including 28 said by Israel to be attackers and the rest in clashes.

Israel has repeatedly denied Palestinian allegations that 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 fueled by a rise in visits to the shrine by Jewish activists demanding prayer rights, including senior members of Netanyahu’s coalition government. They say the violence is the result of nearly 50 years of occupation and a lack of a political horizon toward statehood.

The hilltop compound in Jerusalem, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, 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, and was the home to their biblical Temples. Muslims 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 Mosque and gold-topped Dome of the Rock.

Saturday’s proposal, particularly Jordan’s engagement, could go a long way in easing the tensions. Israel captured the holy site from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. But under a longstanding arrangement, Jordan maintains custodial rights over the Muslim holy sites through an organization called the Waqf, and since signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, has often served as a mediator. When similar tensions erupted last year at the same site, Jordan briefly withdrew its ambassador from Israel and tensions subsequently abated.

Just before midnight, Netanyahu issued a statement repeating Israel’s commitment to upholding the status quo “in word and in practice” and saying it has “no intention” to divide the compound.

“Israel believes that those who visit or worship on the Temple Mount must be allowed to do so in peace, free from violence, from threats, from intimidation and from provocations,” the statement said. “We welcome increased coordination between the Israeli authorities and the Jordanian Waqf, including to ensure that visitors and worshippers demonstrate restraint and respect for the sanctity of the area.”

It called for “the immediate restoration of calm” and “appropriate steps” to be taken to restore calm. “We look forward to working cooperatively to lower tensions, stop incitement and discourage violence,” it said.

Palestinian officials and representatives from the Waqf had no immediate comment, saying they were still awaiting details.

Kerry, who met with Netanyahu in Berlin on Thursday, said the leaders “expressed their strong commitment to ending the violence and restoring the calm as soon as possible.”

“I hope that based on these conversations we can finally put to rest some of the false assumptions, perceptions” about the holy site, Kerry said. “Those perceptions are stoking the tensions and fueling the violence and it is important for us to end the provocative rhetoric and start to change the public narrative that comes out of those false perceptions.”

In addition to the round-the-clock video monitoring, Kerry said the understandings included Israel fully respecting Jordan’s “special role” as custodian of the site, its continued enforcement of religious worship at the site in which Muslims pray there and non-Muslims visit and its commitment not to divide the site and to reject any attempt to suggest otherwise.

Kerry said video monitoring would provide “comprehensive visibility and transparency, and that could really be a game-changer in discouraging anybody from disturbing the sanctity of this holy site.”

It remained unclear how the new arrangement will work, when it will begin and who will be doing the monitoring. It’s also unclear if this will have any impact on the violence. Most of the Palestinian attackers have been teenagers or in their 20s, and it is not clear whether politicians can influence them.

The United Temple Mount Movement in Israel, an umbrella organization representing groups that seek Jewish prayer rights at the site, said it objected to Kerry’s plans and vowed to take all actions “within the legal-democratic framework” to fight it.

On Friday, Israel lifted restrictions on Muslim worshippers after having barred younger Muslim men – seen by police as the main potential trouble-makers – from entering the compound on Fridays, the main day of prayer in the Muslim religious week. The site itself has been quiet for more than a week.

Elsewhere, however, the violence has continued. On Saturday, Israeli forces shot a knife-wielding Palestinian dead after he ran toward a crossing between Israel and the West Bank and tried to stab security personnel, the Israeli military said. Security camera footage showed the youth running through the crossing while holding a knife as security men took up positions to stop him.

The previous day, Palestinians threw a firebomb at an Israeli car in the West Bank, wounding a mother and her two children, one of whom, a 4-year-old girl, was badly burned.

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