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Palestinians and Israelis are killing each other over Jerusalem's holiest site

Tensions over Jerusalem’s holiest site exploded into violence Friday, leaving at least five people dead and another in critical condition, stirring fear that greater violence could soon spread throughout the country.

Protests were marred early Friday when an Israeli settler killed an 18-year-old Palestinian demonstrating in the Ras al-Amud neighborhood in East Jerusalem. In separate incidents later on, Israeli police killed two Palestinian protesters who were on the streets during clashes with Israeli forces, according to Palestinian health officials, and two Israelis settlers living in a West Bank settlement were killed in a stabbing attack, while the third remains in critical condition.

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Friday’s outbreak in violence followed a series of tit-for-tat actions by Israelis and Palestinians centering on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, known to Jews as the Temple Mount. Israel brought escalations to a boil by closing the mosque for Friday prayers last week and installing metal detectors. That decision came after three Palestinian militants, whom Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld identified as terrorists, attacked a group of Israeli police officers guarding the mosque complex, killing two officers. All three attackers were killed in the shooting.

Israel insists the metal detectors are needed to prevent more attacks on Israeli security forces. “I assume that with time they will understand that this is not terrible,” Jerusalem police head Yoram Halevy told Israel’s Army Radio earlier this week.

But the placement of metal detectors has fueled anger among Palestinians who see the new security arrangements to enter Islam’s third-holiest site as part of a larger Israeli effort to enact sovereignty over the hotly contested holy site.

“The restrictions do little to enhance the security of either Palestinians or Israeli police but are a cynical ploy by [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to extend Israeli sovereignty in a place [that] has been under Islamic… control for centuries,” Zaha Hassan, a human rights attorney and Middle East Fellow at New America, said in a statement sent to journalists.

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A growing right-wing movement to allow open Jewish prayer at the site, which is currently barred by Israeli law, and ultimately build a Jewish temple there has stirred worry among Palestinians, who view the Al-Aqsa mosque as a symbol of their national aspirations for a state and capital in East Jerusalem. Combined with Palestinian concern over changes to religious arrangements at the mosque complex, the introduction of the metal detectors has led to mass protest across the occupied Palestinian territories.

In Jerusalem, Palestinians responded to the Israeli security moves with a boycott. The Waqf, the Jordanian Islamic authorities that manage the holy site, called on worshippers to “reject” Israel’s measures by holding mass prayers on the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City. But many of the mass prayers quickly turned into nightly clashes with Israeli police.

Palestinians authorities and protesters have remained steadfast throughout the week, calling for mass prayer and protests on Friday, the Islamic holy day. Thousands of Palestinians poured into Jerusalem’s Old City to participate, and Israeli security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring at least 450 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

The protests have since spread from Jerusalem to other cities in the Palestinian West Bank, and the Palestinian militant group Hamas warned Israel that “al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem are red lines.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held firm, vowing that the metal detectors would remain, despite Israeli army officials’ requests that he remove them to avoid greater unrest. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, announced that he will cut off all contacts with Israel over the metal detector dispute.

The surge in violence has sparked concern that unrest in Jerusalem may soon extend to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip were tensions are already running high. Last month, Israel in coordination with the Palestinian Authority cut electricity to Gaza, leading to 20-hour blackouts, a deterioration in hospital service, worries over polluted water supplies, and concern that Palestinian militant groups would respond with violence.

What happens in Jerusalem or Gaza often sparks escalation across Israel and the occupied territories. Three years ago, widespread unrest in Jerusalem brought on Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza into Israeli towns, culminating in a bloody 51-day war that killed over 2,100 Palestinians and 73 Israelis.

Alex Kane is a journalist focusing on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties.