Israel arrests top Muslim official after holy site unrest

Sheikh Abdel Azeem Salhab looks on after he was released by Israeli police at a police station in Jerusalem

Sheikh Abdel Azeem Salhab looks on after he was released by Israeli police at a police station in Jerusalem

Official Palestinian news agency WAFA reported that his deputy Najih Bakira was also arrested, but police had not confirmed it.

Israeli police have arrested the head of the Islamic authority that oversees Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem following recent protests.

Senior officials in Amman issued a robust condemnation of the arrests and an apparent order by Israel to summon the Director General of the Endowments of Jerusalem Sheikh Mohammad Azzam al-Kkahtib, calling for the "immediate release of the detainees and the cancellation of the request to summon the Director of Awqaf in Jerusalem".

Because of the religious sensitivities over the site the king of Jordan retains a role in ensuring the upkeep of the Muslim holy places in the city and Jordan appoints the Waqf Council which oversees compound.

On Friday, the Waqf council chose to re-open the prayer space at the Bab al-Rahma gate despite opposition from Israel, who originally sealed it off in 2003 during the second intifada.

The statement said Israel is "playing with fire in these hard circumstances", and called for "the immediate release of the detainees".

Earlier on Friday, Israeli police arrested 60 people before Friday prayers at the complex amid a week of tension over access to that corner of the mosque's compound.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told Reuters Salhab and another person were arrested on Sunday morning, two days after the incident, for breaching an order, and that they were being held for questioning. Police have since arrested 60 Palestinians suspected of "causing disturbances" and "inciting violence".

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"He's the most senior Jordanian figure in the [Palestinian] territories".

Israeli policemen detain a young Palestinian demonstrator during clashes after protesters tried to break the lock on a gate at the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem on February 18, 2019 after it was closed by Israeli authorities.

Despite the arrests, the Bab al-Rahma prayer space remained open on Sunday. The United Nations regards East Jerusalem as occupied, and the city's status as disputed until resolved by negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Access was closed by an Israeli court order in 2003 during the second Palestinian intifada over alleged militant activity there, police say, but Waqf officials have argued that the organisation that prompted the ban no longer exists.

Muslims regard it as the third holiest site in Islam.

The small Bab al-Rahmeh mosque that Salhab opened lies on the eastern side of the compound, which is revered by Jews as the site of the Jewish temples of antiquity.

The religious site is located in east Jerusalem, annexed by Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War in a move never recognized by the global community.

Last week, Israeli authorities closed the Al-Rahma gate, preventing hundreds of Palestinian worshippers from entering the sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque complex.

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