JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s foreign minister on Sunday accused the Hamas militant group of orchestrating recent unrest at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site, responding to criticism that Israeli police used heavy-handed tactics to quell the violence.
Yair Lapid made the comments following days of clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians at the contested holy site, which is revered by Jews and Muslims. The confrontations have come at a time of heightened tensions Following a string of deadly attacks inside Israel, arrest raids in the occupied West Bank and rocket attacks into Israel launched from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. It is the worst violence to shake the region since an 11-day war last year.
Speaking to foreign reporters, Lapid accused Hamas of “hijacking” the activities at the Al-Aqsa Mosque during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and encouraging young Palestinian men to throw stones and fireworks at Israeli security forces.
“They have done this to create the provocation to force the Israeli police to enter the mosque” and set off a regionwide conflict, he said.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third-holiest site in Islam and an emotional symbol for the Palestinians. It sits on a sprawling esplanade that also is the holiest site for Jews, who call it to the Temple Mount because it was the location of the biblical Jewish Temples. The competing claims to the site lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have sparked numerous rounds of violence in the past.
The Palestinians have accused Israel of provoking the latest violence by allowing large numbers of Jewish pilgrims to visit the site. Last week, Jews celebrated the festival of Passover, a time when tens of thousands of people visit Jerusalem.
Under longstanding agreements, Jews are permitted to visit the compound, but they are barred from praying. But in recent years, an increasing number of religious extremists have begun to quietly pray in violation of the rules, sometimes with Israeli police watching on. The Palestinians fear that such actions are part of an Israeli plot to take over or divide the site.
Lapid rejected such accusations, saying that Israel is committed to maintaining the “status quo” at the site.
“There is no change. There will be no change. We have no plans to divide the Temple Mount between religions,” he said. He called on Israel’s allies in the Muslim world to “act against these fake news” and to help calm the situation.
Lapid also rejected suggestions that Israeli police have used excessive force to disperse the demonstrations at the Al-Aqsa site.
On Friday, Israeli riot police stormed the compound after Palestinian youths hurled stones at them. Palestinian social media have been filled with videos showing Israeli police hitting people with clubs and firing tear gas and stun grenades. Israeli police, meanwhile, have released their own videos showing Palestinians inside the mosque hurling stones and explosives .
After midday prayers on Friday, a small group of Palestinians waving Hamas flags marched in protest and tried to break into an empty police post inside the compound. Israeli police used a drone to drop tear gas on them, sending crowds of people scattering across the esplanade .
“During Ramadan, Israel ensured that hundreds of thousands of Muslims could go to the Temple Mount and pray at Al-Aqsa,” Lapid said. “Despite provocations by terrorist organizations, despite attempts to stoke violence: We have done, and continue to do everything to enable peaceful prayer.”
Despite the Israeli pledges to protect freedom of worship, it has maintained restrictions that bar entry to the mosque for hundreds of thousands of Muslim Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel says such restrictions are a security measure.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum blamed Israel for the violence.
“The one who bears full responsibility for detonating the situation in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque is the occupation government, which brutally attacks defenseless worshippers on a daily basis, prevents them from reaching Al-Aqsa and tries to impose the project of Judaization,” he said.
The string of events in recent weeks has raised fears of a repeat of last year, when protests and violence in Jerusalem eventually boiled over, helping to ignite an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas and communal violence in mixed Jewish-Arab cities inside Israel .
The rocket fire out of Gaza in recent days has been the heaviest since last year’s war. None of the rockets have caused any damage or injuries inside Israel, but they have set off sirens in parts of southern Israel and angered residents there. A misfired rocket also landed inside Gaza on Friday, exploding near a home and UN school and lightly wounding two people, according to local officials.
On Sunday, Israel closed its crossing with Gazabarring some 12,000 Palestinians from going to work in Israel. The job permits have been an economic lifeline for thousands of Gazan families and were considered to be a key factor in maintaining stability before the latest fighting broke out.
The Gaza workers’ union accused Israel of imposing “collective punishment” on people who were not involved in the fighting. Israel has not said when it will reopen the crossing.
Associated Press writer Wafaa Shurafa in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed reporting.