JERUSALEM – Palestinian anger over metal detectors installed by Israel at Jerusalem’s most contested shrine boiled over on Friday, setting off clashes that killed three Palestinians and hospitalized dozens in the most widespread street violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank in nearly two years.
The metal detectors are perceived by the Palestinians as an encroachment on Muslim rights and portrayed by Israel as a needed security measure after a deadly shooting attack there last week that killed two Israeli police officers.
Palestinian protesters, some of them masked, burned tires or threw stones and firecrackers at Israeli troops who responded with live rounds, rubber bullets and tear gas.
White clouds of tear gas rose from Jerusalem streets and West Bank flashpoints. In one neighborhood, Palestinians threw stones from behind a mattress used as a shield.
Israel also faced growing criticism from the Muslim world, and thousands staged anti-Israel protests after Friday prayers in Jordan and Yemen. Turkey and Egypt also condemned the violence.
The confrontations in the Holy Land could escalate in coming days, as both sides dig in.
Israel said the metal detectors would remain in place. Lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel would not surrender to what he said were “violence and incitement” by those “attempting to drag us into a religious war.”
Jerusalem’s top Muslim cleric, Mohammed Hussein, said protests, including mass street prayers outside the shrine, would continue until the devices are removed. He told worshippers Friday that they should prepare for a “long test of wills” with Israel.
“We will not back off,” he said.
The shrine, revered by Muslims and Jews, sits at the emotional epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, symbolizing the rival religious and national narratives of the two sides.
Disputes over the 37-acred (15-hectare) walled hilltop platform in Jerusalem’s Old City have repeatedly triggered major confrontations in the past.
The latest round of violence began a week ago when three Arab gunmen, citizens of Israel, opened fire from inside the shrine at Israeli police guards at one of the gates, killing two before being shot dead. In response, Israel closed the site for two days, but found no guns during searches.
Earlier this week, Israel began installing metal detectors at the gates of the compound, saying extra measures were required to prevent further attacks.
Muslim leaders portrayed the metal detectors as part of a purported Israeli campaign to expand its control over the shrine — a claim Israel denies. Muslim clerics urged worshippers to pray in the streets near the shrine, rather than submit to the new security procedures.
The faithful complied. Thousands flocked to the Old City each day this week for street prayers, kneeling on mats spread on cobble stone and asphalt.
On Friday, the highlight of the Muslim religious week, Israeli police severely restricted Muslim access to the Old City to prevent mass protests.
Some 3,000 officers were deployed at checkpoints in and around the city, turning away Muslim men under the age of 50, including those trying to reach the city from Israel and the West Bank.
In the end, thousands reached the Old City — a fraction of the typical Friday turnout of tens of thousands of worshippers.
After peaceful prayers, clashes erupted in several areas of Jerusalem and across the West Bank.
Palestinian health officials said three Palestinians were killed by live fire in different areas of Jerusalem.
The Red Crescent said 390 Palestinians were hurt, including close to 100 who were hospitalized for live fire or rubber bullet injuries. Israeli police said five officers were wounded.
The perceived threat to the shrine, home to the Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques, has galvanized Palestinians — especially those in east Jerusalem which was captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and quickly annexed.
Israeli forces storm hospital in Jerusalem al-Quds to arrest those injured during Friday’s protests #SaveAlAqsa pic.twitter.com/wltlAxclmu
— Press TV (@PressTV) July 21, 2017
Since 1967, Israel has increasingly cut off east Jerusalem from its West Bank hinterland, leaving the city’s Arab residents without a political leadership.
Muslim clerics stepped into the void this week, taking the lead in prayer protests.
Under the post-1967 arrangements, Muslims administer the compound. Jews can visit, but not pray there. For decades, the status quo held, in part because leading rabbis, citing religious purity laws, banned Jews from entering.
In recent years, religious opinion has shifted, and growing numbers of Jews are visiting the compound. This shift has stoked Muslim fears of a purported Israeli plan to expand Jewish control there. Israel has reiterated that it has no intention to change the status quo.
Fakhri Abu Diab, a 55-year-old worshipper, said he feels Muslims must stand their ground.
“If we let them, they [Israelis] will take over the mosque completely,” he said, standing near the Old City. “If we resist them, they will stop.”
The dispute over the detectors has led to rising tensions between Israel and the Muslim world.
The compound is the third holiest site of Islam, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. It is also Judaism’s holiest site, once home to biblical Temples.
Jordan, the custodian of the Jerusalem shrine, has repeatedly appealed to Israel to remove the devices. The two countries cooperate closely on regional security issues, but frequently disagree on Israel’s policies at the shrine.
On Friday, several thousand Jordanians protested against Israel in the Jordanian capital of Amman.
Demonstrators chanted, “the people want to liberate Al Aqsa,” referring to one of the mosques in the compound.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said his country is in touch with Israeli officials to try to end the crisis. Speaking in Ankara after Friday prayers, he called Israel’s security measures “radical,” saying limits imposed on Muslim prayers would not contribute to a solution.