CM – What is behind the clashes in Jerusalem?

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Palestinians are fleeing from stun grenades fired by Israeli police officers in clashes at the Damascus Gate outside the gates of Jerusalem (Oded Balilty / AP).

By Joseph Krauss, Associated Press

For weeks, Palestinian demonstrators have been bumping into and Israeli police gather daily in and around Jerusalem’s Old City, home to important religious sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, and the emotional epicenter of the Middle East conflict.

Jerusalem has been the scene of violent clashes between Jews and Arabs for 100 years and remains one of the most competitive cities on earth.

The recent clashes began a month ago with an Israeli attempt to block some Palestinian gatherings at the beginning of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which was already a period of heightened religious sensitivity.

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Israeli security forces in front of the Dome of the Rock on the grounds of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the old city of Jerusalem (Mahmoud Illean / AP)

After those restrictions eased, tensions over a plan to evict dozens of Palestinians from a neighborhood in East Jerusalem continued to spark off.

Stun grenades echoed over a sacred hillside on Monday, and hundreds of Palestinians were caught in clashes Protesters throwing stones and police injured by firing tear gas and rubber bullets. The police were also injured.

Here’s a look at why Jerusalem always seems nervous – and what sparked the latest round of violence.

Israel regards Jerusalem as its « unified, eternal » capital. It had conquered East Jerusalem, which also includes the Old City, in the Middle East War of 1967 along with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians want these areas for their future state, with East Jerusalem serving as their future capital. But Israel annexed the eastern part of the city in an internationally unrecognized move.

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Jewish men covered in prayer cloths pray at the Western Wall, the holiest place for Jews to pray in the Old City of Jerusalem, during Jerusalem Day (Oded Balilty / AP).

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The fate of East Jerusalem was one of the most sensitive issues in the peace process, which stalled more than a decade ago.

The Israelis were scheduled on Monday for Jerusalem Day, a national holiday to celebrate the annexation. Over the past few years, thousands of Israelis – mostly religious nationalists – have marched through the Old City, including the densely populated Muslim Quarter, which many Palestinians see as provocative.

In recent days, die-hard Israelis have staged other events in East Jerusalem that have led to isolated, violent clashes with Palestinians.

The clashes on Monday took place in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the old town. The mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and is located on a spacious plateau on which the famous golden Dome of the Rock is also located. Muslims refer to the area as the Noble Sanctuary.

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Palestinians evacuate a wounded man in clashes with Israeli security forces in front of the Dome of the Rock (Mahmoud Illean / AP)

The walled plateau is also the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount, as biblical temples were located here. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple in AD 70, leaving only the Western Wall. The mosques were built centuries later.

Neighboring Jordan serves as the administrator of the site, which is run by an Islamic foundation called Waqf. The site is open to tourists at certain times, but only Muslims are allowed to pray there. The Western Wall is the holiest place for Jews to pray.

In recent years, groups of religious and nationalist Jews escorted by police have visited the site in greater numbers and prayed against the post-1967 Israel, Jordan and Muslim religious authorities. The Palestinians view the frequent visits and attempts at prayer by Jews as provocation and often ignite fights or more serious violence.

Some Israelis say the site should be open to all worshipers. The Palestinians reject it because they fear that Israel will eventually take over or divide the site. Israeli officials say they have no intention of changing the status quo.

Jews born in East Jerusalem are Israeli citizens, while Palestinians from East Jerusalem are granted some form of permanent residence that can be revoked if they are out for long periods of time live in the city. You can apply for citizenship, but it’s a long and insecure process and most choose not to because they don’t recognize Israeli control.

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Worshipers chant slogans during a protest on the grounds of the Al-Aqsa Mosque against the likely evictions of Palestinian families from their homes (Mahmoud Illean / AP)

Israel has built Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, in which around 220,000 people live. It has severely constrained the growth of Palestinian neighborhoods, leading to overcrowding and the unauthorized construction of thousands of homes that are under threat of demolition.

Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and New York-based Human Rights Watch have in recent reports citing discriminatory policies in East Jerusalem, arguing that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid. Israel rejects these allegations, saying that the residents of Jerusalem will be treated equally.

The recent night clashes began at the beginning of Ramadan when Israeli police placed barriers in front of the Old City’s Damascus Gate, a popular meeting place after evening prayers during the holy month in which Muslims fast from morning to evening. They later removed the barriers, but then the protests escalated over the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families from the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

The families are embroiled in a long legal battle with ideological Jewish settlers trying to find property in overcrowded Palestinian territories Areas outside the old town for sale. Israel portrays it as a dispute over private property, but the plight of families has attracted worldwide attention.

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A Palestinian runs away from tear gas in front of the Dome of the Rock (Mahmoud Illean / AP).

The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which governs Gaza, has called for a new intifada or insurrection such as that sparked by an Israeli politician’s visit to Al-Aqsa in 2000. Militants from Gaza have fired rockets and balloons with incendiary devices attached. Support for demonstrators as an informal ceasefire with Israel has begun to erode.

Protests have been held in the occupied West Bank and Arab communities in Israel. A string of deadly shootings in the West Bank last week has also escalated tensions.

Jordan and other Arab nations on friendly terms with Israel have condemned crackdown on the protests, while Israel’s archenemy Iran has promoted Palestinian attacks. The US and EU have condemned the violence and expressed concern about the evictions.

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