Israel holds grand mufti for questioning on al-Aqsa mosque disturbance

JERUSALEM — Israeli police took the top Muslim caretaker of Jerusalem’s Islamic holy places from his home early Wednesday and held him for questioning about a violent disturbance at the al-Aqsa mosque, a move that increased tensions with Palestinians at a time when the United States is trying to revive peace talks.

The detention of the grand mufti of Jerusalem, who is entrusted to protect the ­third-holiest site in Islam, coincided with Jerusalem Day, a public holiday when Israel celebrates the anniversary of its capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, with flag-waving teens parading through the Old City.

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After being questioned for six hours, the grand mufti, Mohamad Hussein, was released without charges being filed against him.

The mosque is on the Temple Mount, a holy site for Muslims and Jews, and the scene of frequent clashes involving rock-throwing Muslims and Israeli police with riot shields and stun grenades.

Although Hussein has been detained by authorities before, it is rare to bring such a high-level religious figure in for an interrogation. His detention provoked protests from Arab leaders.

In a statement, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad called the arrest “a grave escalation in Israel’s relentless violations of international law and a belligerent assault, especially in light of the Mufti’s position.”

Jordanian lawmakers issued a nonbinding resolution to expel Israel’s ambassador from Amman.

Reacting to the condemnation from Jordan, Israeli President Shimon Peres said: “Jerusalem is dear to us. Peace with Jordan is dear to us. I want to say loudly and clearly that we respect all the holy sites of all religions and will do everything necessary to protect them as agreed between us.”

According to Israel police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, the incident that led to the mufti’s detention began Tuesday when police detained an Israeli Arab who refused to present his identification card when entering the walled esplanade that Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount.

After the man’s arrest, Rosenfeld said, a group of young men began to throw plastic chairs at Israeli tourists who were visiting the plaza around the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, considered the third-most holy site in Islam. Two police officers were slightly injured.

Rosenfeld said the tourists were on a routine visit and were not violating the regulations that non-Muslims refrain from praying, wearing religious symbols or carrying flags at the site, which is also venerated by Jews as the site of the First and Second temples.

The grand mufti was held under suspicion that he was involved in inciting public disorder. He was released without charges, Rosenfeld said, who did not specify what he meant by possible incitement.

The detention came as U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry is lobbying Israelis and Palestinians to revive long-stalled peace talks.

On Wednesday, Kerry met in Rome with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who has been tasked with leading negotiations. Last week, Kerry met with an envoy for Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, and with foreign ministers from several Arab states.

“We are working through threshold questions,” Kerry said. “We are doing it with a seriousness of purpose that — I think Minister Livni would agree with me — has not been present in a while.”

Kerry announced that he would return to Jerusalem and the West Bank on May 21 to press the case. He urged both sides to make concessions that could build confidence and help Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu steer around conditions that each side has set.

Israeli media have reported that Netanyahu is holding off new settlement announcements in deference to Kerry, and the Palestinians agreed to postpone a complaint against Israel at the International Criminal Court.

Livni thanked Kerry for reviving a dormant process. “Some of us lost hope, and this is something that we need,” Livni said.

In Washington, the White House said late Wednesday that President Obama and Netanyahu had spoken by phone about “regional security issues and Middle East peace. They agreed to continue the close coordination between the United States and Israel on a range of security issues.”

U.S. officials have said little about the details of Kerry’s proposals, but the 2002 Arab League peace offer is a pillar of the strategy. Led by Qatar, a group of key Arab states reaffirmed the proposal at a meeting Kerry called in Washington last week. The group agreed in principle that Arab states could make regional peace with Israel if it withdraws from land occupied since 1967, with minor mutually agreed land swaps and changes to borders.

Israel never agreed to the original deal, in part out of concern that pre-1967 borders are unworkable.

As Kerry tries to revive negotiations, the Israeli group Peace Now, which monitors settlement construction, reported Tuesday that the Netanyahu government has not approved any new building in the Israeli-occupied West Bank or East Jerusalem since Obama visited in March.

“It is not a freeze, because there is still ongoing construction on the ground. But since Obama, there hasn’t been any announcements of new construction and no new provocations,” said Hagit Ofran, spokeswoman for Peace Now. “It looks to us like the government is trying to give Kerry a chance to get the process started again.”

 
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