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Clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians continue at the Al-Aqsa mosque


For much of this past week, clashes have broken out at the most sensitive and contested site in Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Palestinians, most of them young, threw rocks at Israeli police, who then used tear gas and other measures to try to disperse them. All this during two of the holiest observances in the Muslim and Jewish calendars, Ramadan and Passover. NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now from Jerusalem.

Peter, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: And help us understand what's been going on these past few days.

KENYON: Well, for most of this week, young Palestinians would attend dawn prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque, and then some would throw rocks at Israeli police. And they responded with percussion grenades, rubber bullets. Yesterday, there was gas dropped from an Israeli drone. And right-wing Jewish groups would make their way to the Temple Mount, the most sacred site in Judaism. There have been daily tallies of injured or arrested Palestinians. Yesterday, one young man fell into a coma. He's said to be in critical condition. Today is a bit different. No stone-throwing, no police charge at Al-Aqsa. But there is another issue - an Israeli police presence at a Christian site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where church officials say police are limiting the number of worshippers who can attend services. They're demanding a special police permit to get in, and the worshippers don't have those. Now, meanwhile, there have been rockets fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel, including some early today. Israel's been responding with airstrikes and other measures, and there have been incidents elsewhere and a curfew in the West Bank - so basically a tense and sometimes violent week.

SIMON: And are people in Jerusalem on all sides worried about where this might be headed?

KENYON: They are. Palestinian attacks killed at least 14 people in Israel in recent weeks, after all, and Israeli military raids then led to a number of arrests in the West Bank. And that situation in Gaza - if you remember last year, rocket fire from there led to an 11-day war between Israeli forces and Gaza militants - 200 Palestinians reported killed, more than a dozen Israelis. And a lot of people are hoping to avoid anything like that.

SIMON: Peter, you've spoken with people on all sides. How do they stake out their positions about what's going on at the mosque? It's an almost astonishingly small area that's watched around the world.

KENYON: It is. And Al-Aqsa has been under Israeli control for a long time, since 1967. Today, Palestinians are worried that Israel might be convinced to change the rules, making it less accessible for them. I spoke with Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani. He's with the Islamic Trust that's charged with overseeing the compound. He's a very polite man, but he was uncompromising in his views. Here's a bit of what he said.

SHEIKH OMAR AL-KISWANI: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: He said, "our position is clear. The Al-Aqsa Mosque is the sole property of the Muslim people who are not ready to divide or to share." Now, Israeli nationalists would say, even though it's been a mosque for several centuries, it's holy to Jews as the site of the ancient temple, and they should be allowed there, too.

SIMON: Doesn't seem to be an obvious compromise, is there?

KENYON: It doesn't. The State Department was here. Officials met with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, but no sign came out of de-escalation immediately. Israel said it's simply trying to preserve the status quo at the Temple Mount. The Palestinian Authority is saying Washington should intervene. For now, most of the people I've spoken with don't see a clear path to calm the situation quickly. But no doubt, efforts will continue.

SIMON: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Jerusalem, thanks so much.

KENYON: Thanks, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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