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JERUSALEM – Israeli police acknowledged on Wednesday that security forces are preventing journalists from entering parts of the Old City of Jerusalem as part of efforts to lower tensions around a contested hilltop compound that has been at the epicenter of the latest deadly flare-up in Israeli-Palestinian violence.
The cobbled streets around the walled compound have been the scene of prayer protests and violent clashes in the past week between Palestinians and Israeli police.
Reporters and camera crews have flocked to the area to cover the events — even as wary tourists stayed away.
The site is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, or home of biblical Temples destroyed in antiquity, and is the holiest site in Judaism. Known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, it is the third holiest site of Islam and houses the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosques.
After Israel installed metal detectors following an attack there earlier this month that killed two police officers, Muslim worshippers boycotted the shrine, staging instead protest prayers on the street outside. And though Israel this week dismantled the metal detectors, the Muslims say they will not return until Israel removes the new railings and cameras that have been installed.
But as a tense quiet returned to the compound, it is slowly becoming the focus of another controversy — one between Israeli police and the news media.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said on Wednesday that "journalists are being prevented from coming in those specific areas where there have been disturbances and riots." According to Rosenfeld, the decision was made by the Jerusalem police district.
It was the first formal acknowledgement that media were being banned from the area near the contested site.
Reporters have complained this week that they were being preventing from covering the unrest around the shrine while tourists were able to freely move about the city and film with their mobile phones.
An Associated Press cameraman was told by police on Wednesday that he couldn't enter the Old City and was ordered to keep back a hundred meters (yards) from the gateway.
Meanwhile, video uploaded to Twitter by an Israeli Channel 10 journalist trying to report from outside the Ottoman-era Old City walls also showed police ordering camera crews to leave the area.
The Foreign Press Association said journalists have been shoved and that this has created "a dangerous situation" where accredited journalists were blocked from doing their jobs.
"This appears to be a kind of innovative censorship that is surprising in a country that prides itself on press freedom," the association said.