JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday blamed recent violence at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque on Arab “extremist elements” whom he said spread lies that Israel intended to dig under the holy site.
Tensions in Jerusalem have risen over the past few weeks after Israeli police and Palestinian protesters clashed near al-Aqsa in the walled Old City on the eve of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur late last month.
Reasons for the confrontations at the flashpoint compound, which is revered by Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and by Jews as the Temple Mount, were disputed.
Israeli security forces control access to the area and regularly prohibit young Muslim men from entering the holy site in the Old City, citing security concerns.
In last month’s violence, small groups of Palestinian stone-throwers confronted Israeli forces, and Israel banned the Israeli Arab head of a fundamentalist Islamist movement from Jerusalem, saying he was inciting violence.
“Extremist elements tried to disturb the peace and quiet in Jerusalem,” Netanyahu told reporters at the weekly meeting of his cabinet.
“We are talking about a radical minority that spread lies that we intend to dig under the Temple Mount. I want to make clear that this is a lie,” he said. “I appreciate that the majority of Israel’s Arab citizens were not caught up in these provocations.”
Muslim religious authorities have pointed to Israeli archaeological work near the compound as endangering the foundations of al-Aqsa, allegations Israel has long denied.
The violence in Arab East Jerusalem, which has since dissipated, was accompanied by warnings from Palestinians in senior positions of the risk of a third Intifada, or general uprising.
A Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000 after then-Israeli opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, toured the plaza above Judaism’s Western Wall where al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock shrine now stand.
During Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, his opening of a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel for tourists near the holy compound touched off gun battles in which 60 Palestinians and 15 Israelis were killed.
Israel captured East Jerusalem in a 1967 war and annexed it in a move that has not won international recognition. Israel considers all of Jerusalem its “eternal and united” capital.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of the state they hope to establish in the occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.