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Israel bans Muslim men under-50 from Al-Aqsa mosque

Stones were thrown at Israeli workers after clashes with police who retaliated with firing. Photograph: (Reuters)

AFP Jerusalem, Israel Jul 28, 2017, 12.34 PM (IST)

Israel barred men under 50 from Friday prayers at a sensitive Jerusalem holy site, with more clashes feared after Palestinians ended a boycott of the compound and entered for the first time in two weeks.

Tensions at the Haram al-Sharif, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, were high even after thousands of worshippers returned to the site on Thursday ending a boycott over new security measures that Israel eventually removed.

Friday prayers typically draw thousands to Al-Aqsa, and police said there were "indications that disturbances and demonstrations will take place today".

Roads around Jerusalem's Old City, where the compound that encompasses Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock is located, were closed and some 3,500 police were deployed.

Police said they had also removed a number of people who attempted to stay inside Al-Aqsa mosque overnight.

"It is a cowardly act," Amjad Hassoun, a young man from Jerusalem who was walking near the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City, said of the age restriction.

"I say to (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu that he is a coward. We will continue to protect Al-Aqsa."

Dozens wounded

On Thursday, the Palestinian Red Crescent said 187 people were wounded inside the mosque compound and in adjacent areas of the Old City after clashes erupted, with police saying stones had been thrown at officers.

Amnesty International alleged Israeli security forces fired "stun grenades, tear gas and sponge-tipped bullets into a peaceful crowd" at an entrance to the compound.

Some 119 people were detained, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, adding 21 were still in custody, including nine minors. The Prisoners Club alleged a number of them were beaten by police.

Thousands of worshippers earlier Thursday streamed into the compound for afternoon prayers for the first time in two weeks, ending a boycott after Israel removed controversial new security measures, installed after a July 14 attack killed two policemen.

Some cried as they entered while others shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest). Some brought their children in what was initially a celebratory atmosphere.

Muslims had in previous days refused to enter the compound and prayed in the streets outside after Israel installed the new security measures.

Palestinians viewed the move as Israel asserting further control over the site.

Israeli authorities said the measures, including metal detectors, were needed because the July 14 attackers smuggled guns into the compound and emerged from it to attack the officers.

The United States welcomed "the efforts undertaken to de-escalate tensions in Jerusalem today".

"Calm and security will create the best opportunity to return to dialogue and the pursuit of peace," US President Donald Trump's special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, said.

Jordan, the custodian of Jerusalem's Muslim holy sites, welcomed the removal of the security measures but said Israel should not provoke Palestinians there.

"Unless Israel acts responsibly, then we'll be facing another crisis that will push us all towards the abyss," Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said in Cairo following an Arab foreign ministers meeting on Thursday.

 Rare Palestinian victory

Deadly unrest had erupted in the days after the new measures were introduced, with clashes breaking out around the compound and in the occupied West Bank, leaving six Palestinians dead.

A Palestinian also broke into a home in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank and stabbed four Israelis on July 21, killing three of them.

After intensive international diplomacy, Israel had removed the metal detectors on Tuesday.

Newly installed railings and scaffolding where cameras were previously mounted were also removed on Thursday.

The removal was seen as a defeat for Netanyahu, who had ordered the new security measures and was forced to backtrack after warnings the unrest could spiral out of control.

It represented a rare victory for Palestinians, who remained united in their boycott.

Israeli officials had said they were to replace the new security measures with "advanced technologies" -- widely believed to be smart cameras with facial recognition technology.

Cameras are already widespread in Jerusalem's Old City.

The holy compound lies in east Jerusalem, seized by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.

The third-holiest site for Muslims and the most sacred for Jews, it is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has served as a rallying cry for Palestinians.

In 2000, a visit to the compound by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon helped ignite the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

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