Israel arrests Jerusalem Islamic Waqaf head over Al Aqsa protests

Israeli police have arrested the head of the Islamic authority that oversees Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem following protests at the Al Aqsa Mosque.

A senior member of the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf body said that its leader, Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab, was taken into custody early on Sunday morning. The Israeli press also reported that the deputy head of the Waqf was also arrested.

On Friday, Palestinians prayed outside a part of the Al Aqsa mosque compound that Israel sealed off in 2003. At the time, it was home to a heritage organisation that Israel claimed had ties with Hamas.

Israel accused the Waqf of attempting to change the status quo at the sensitive site by convening in the closed area last week. Israeli police placed a lock on a fence in response.

Several people were arrested after the prayers on charges of “causing a disturbance”.

Arab Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi said on Friday that the Waqf should be given full control of the Al Aqsa compound and called the prayers at the Golden Gate area an “important and significant step”.

The status of the compound is a heavily contentious issue and protests and demonstrations at perceived changes to the status quo are common.

Palestinians complain about Israeli politicians and right-wing settlers visiting the site. In 2000, the Second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, was widely believed to have been sparked by a visit to the site by Israel’s opposition leader Ariel Sharon.

Jordan remains a custodian of the site as part of a Palestinian-Jordanian waqf, or Islamic trust, after Israel captured and occupied East Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Sheikh Salhab was appointed to the post by Amman.

King Abdullah II has issued several warnings in recent years to Israel that any changes to the situation at the site, or ongoing fighting, could harm relations between the two countries.

In 2017, a Palestinian man shot two Israeli Druze policemen near the site, leading Tel Aviv to briefly shut the compound for the first time in years. When it was reopened, Jerusalem police installed metal detectors at the compound, but the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, called for Muslims to defy the ban – leading to his arrest by Israel – and there were mass demonstrations.

The Israeli authorities later bowed to pressure and removed the detectors.

The mosque compound is a holy Islam, Judaism and Christianity site. It is also referred to as the Haram esh-Sharif and Temple Mount.

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