JERUSALEM – Israeli riot police briefly clashed with young Palestinian protesters at Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site early Sunday, raising tensions ahead of a major Jewish holiday. No injuries or arrests were reported.
The clashes occurred at a hilltop compound in Jerusalem's Old City that is revered by Jews and Muslims. The site is a frequent flashpoint of violence, and Israel has beefed up security around the area following several rounds of clashes in recent weeks.
In Sunday's incident, police said a small group of masked Palestinian youths threw stones and firecrackers at Israeli police gathered at a main entrance point to the compound. Police, many of them holding riot shields, responded with stun grenades and the crowd was quickly dispersed.
The unrest occurred hours before the beginning of Sukkot, a weeklong festival that celebrates the fall harvest and commemorates the wandering of the ancient Israelites through the desert following the exodus from Egypt.
In ancient times, Jews made pilgrimages to Jerusalem on Sukkot, and many Jews are expected to visit the city throughout the holiday period, raising the risk of further unrest.
The hilltop compound is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, home to the biblical Temples, and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven.
Israel captured the site from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. Under a longstanding arrangement, Jews are allowed to visit the compound, but not pray there, while Jordan retains custodial rights.
Calls by a group of religious Jews to visit the site on the eve of the Jewish New Year have sparked rumors among Palestinians that Israel was planning to disrupt the delicate status quo governing the site and take it over.
These rumors, coupled with some Israeli restrictions on Muslim access to the mosque, fueled the outbreak of violence two weeks ago. Israel denies having any plans to change the status quo. But its actions have drawn criticism from Jordan, a key Arab ally, and other Arab countries.
In Sunday's unrest, dozens of Palestinians entered the compound overnight and early in the morning, fearing that large numbers of Jews would visit because of the Jewish holiday. Palestinian social media sites have been filled with warnings of such visits.
The Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement, a small group that seeks the construction of a new Jewish Temple on the site of the mosque, has called for a march to the compound on Wednesday.
"Our declaration during this historical march before the Islamic enemies of Israel and their supporters throughout the world who are trying to stop and prevent this major godly event will be: 'Yes! We are going to build the third holy Temple soon and nothing will stop us!" the group said in an email to its supporters.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that as in previous years, police would not allow the group "anywhere near" the compound.
In several days of clashes, Muslim protesters barricaded themselves inside the mosque while hurling stones and fireworks at police. The unrest spread to Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, where Palestinian protesters hurled stones at police and Israeli motorists.
In one incident, an Israeli motorist was killed over the New Year holiday after his car was pelted with stones. Israel has responded last week by approving harsher measures that would loosen the rules of engagement for police to respond to stone throwers.
Israel has deployed thousands of police throughout sensitive spots in Jerusalem. It also has arrested dozens of Palestinian suspects and accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of "incitement."
In recent days, Israel has barred Jewish visits to the compound and lifted all restrictions on Muslim worshippers to ease tension because of the current Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday.