Jerusalem's Muslims return to pray at al-Aqsa amid clashes

Christian prays alongside Muslims in Jerusalem
Christian prays alongside Muslims in Jerusalem

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Jerusalem (CNN)Clashes broke out between Muslim worshippers and Israeli security forces in the Old City of Jerusalem on Thursday as the Muslim community resumed prayers inside the al-Aqsa compound.

The worshippers returned for midday prayers for the first time in nearly two weeks after Israel removed controversial security measures from the entrance to the holy site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and Jews as the Temple Mount.
The decision to pray inside -- instead of outside the site in protest -- followed a recommendation from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Muslim leaders of Jerusalem.
Many worshippers entered in an organized fashion but occasional scuffles erupted. Israeli police threw stun grenades and smoke grenades to disperse the crowds; Muslim worshippers hurled water bottles and stones in response.
    Thousands responded to the calls of Muslim religious leaders to attend afternoon prayers on Thursday. Amid the crowds, there was a visible Israeli security presence.
    Earlier, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Imam of al-Aqsa Mosque said they were satisfied with Israel's removal of metal detectors and other security measures opposed by Muslims.
    Muslim religious leaders had called upon worshippers to enter through all gates collectively for afternoon prayers on Thursday.
    They also called for all mosques in the area to shut down on Friday and direct worshippers to the al-Aqsa Mosque instead.
    The announcement came after Israeli police said cameras that were installed at the site have been taken down, two days after metal detectors were also dismantled.
    Sheikh Omar Kiswani(second from left), al-Aqsa director, and other clergymen join as Palestinian Muslim worshippers pray outside Jerusalem's Old City.
    Israel installed metal detectors and security cameras close to the entrance to the sacred site after an attack in which two Israeli police officers were killed.
    The Jordanian Authority in charge of the site, the Islamic Waqf, encouraged worshippers to return to prayers Thursday morning inside the compound.
    Waqf leaders had not entered al-Aqsa to pray after Israel's decision to install new security measures, and many Muslims follow the lead of the Waqf.
    Previous declarations from political and religious leaders had increased the likelihood of widespread demonstrations in and around Jerusalem following Friday's midday Muslim prayers. The demonstrations often turned into clashes between Palestinian protestors and Israeli soldiers, fueling a wave of unrest.
    Violent clashes rock Jerusalem's Old City
    Violent clashes rock Jerusalem's Old City

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    Violent clashes rock Jerusalem's Old City 02:52
    In a series of tweets on Thursday, Jordan's King Abdullah II stressed the importance of ensuring "respect of historical and legal status quo at Al Haram Al Sharif to prevent repeat of crisis" and warned that Israel's response to a shooting at the Israeli Embassy in Amman this week and other incidents "will have direct impact on our relations."
    The King also posted Tweets accusing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of "political showmanship" and "provocative" conduct that threatened regional security and fueled extremism.
    The security measures are now the same as they were before the July 14 attack at the site, though police are preparing for more confrontations. Netanyahu announced that there would be a greater security presence in the Old City on Friday, with more border police officers at the flashpoints.
    "Overnight, throughout the evening, yesterday all the remaining structures and cameras were removed from the area, which were set up after the terrorist attack," Israeli police told CNN.
    "At the moment that's the situation on the ground. Police are in and around different areas in the Old City. We are making security assessments leading up to Friday prayers."

    Netanyahu threat

    Meanwhile, Netanyahu threatened to close Al Jazeera's office in Jerusalem, according to a statement posted on his official Facebook page.
    Gulf nations demand Qatar shut down Al Jazeera
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    Netanyahu accused the news network of fomenting violence around the Jerusalem security saga.
    "I turned to law enforcement multiple times demanding that they close the Al Jazeera office in Jerusalem," Netanyahu wrote in the post late Thursday. "If this does not happen through legal means, I will act by the necessary means to remove Al Jazeera from Israel."
    In his attempt to ban the Qatar-based network, Netanyahu is perhaps taking his lead from an unlikely source.
    Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have told Qatar to shut down the Al Jazeera network and its affiliates, as part of a list of demands that the Arab states have handed to Qatar as the diplomatic crisis in the Gulf continues.
    Saudi Arabia and Jordan have closed down Al Jazeera offices amid the regional spat. The Egyptian Al Jazeera office shut down in 2013.
    Al Jazeera: 'We demand press freedom'
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    In June, Israeli media reported that Netanyahu was examining the possibility of closing Al Jazeera's offices in Jerusalem, but such a move would likely face significant legal obstacles because of the country's commitment to freedom of the press.
    In response, Al Jazeera said it would take "all necessary legal measures" against the threat.
    "While Al Jazeera denounces such arbitrary accusations and hostile statements, it finds it yet another episode of the ongoing vicious attack that, furthermore, has demanded the entire closure of the network by the countries implementing blockade on Qatar," it said in a statement.
    Al Jazeera vowed to "continue covering the news and events of the occupied Palestinian territories and elsewhere both professionally and objectively."