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Israel bolsters security at Jerusalem holy site ahead of Friday prayers

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Ammar Awad/Reuters

(Read caption) Israeli border police officers walks in front of the Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Muslims as Al Aqsa and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City Wednesday.

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Israel poured police reinforcements into the streets of Jerusalem Friday and again imposed age limits on Palestinians seeking to attend Friday prayers at the Al Aqsa mosque, as officials sought to contain the burgeoning tensions that threatened violence in the holy city.

Amid calls by Hamas for Palestinians to march on Al Aqsa, Islam’s third-holiest shrine, Israel limited access to the mosque compound to men and women over the age of 35. The previous Friday, boys and men under the age of 50 were barred.

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At one access road leading to Al Aqsa, some 500 young Palestinians knelt in prayer in front of dozens of black-garbed Israeli riot police, the Associated Press reported.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned Jordan’s King Abdullah to assure him that Israel had no plans to change the status quo at Jerusalem’s most sensitive religious site and respects the Hashemite kingdom’s jurisdiction there.

The death toll from recent violence climbed Friday, with a second Israeli victim of a hit-and-run attack on Wednesday dying of his wounds, bringing to four the number of people killed. Three Palestinian attackers have also been killed.

On Wednesday, an Israeli security officer was killed and several pedestrians wounded when a resident of East Jerusalem drove his car into a crowded light rail station and then attacked people in the crowd with an iron bar. He was shot dead by police at the scene.

Tensions between Jerusalem Arabs and Israelis have been simmering for months. Two of the leading flashpoints have been Israel’s construction of new neighborhoods for Jews in the occupied Arab sector of Jerusalem, and access to the Old City religious site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif.

With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a deep freeze, Mr. Netanyahu’s overture to the Jordanian king represented one of the few diplomatic tools at his disposal and represented a “rare display of personal diplomacy that highlighted the air of crisis and need for damage control in the holy city,” Joshua Mitnick wrote in The Christian Science Monitor Thursday.

“Jordan is the key ally,’’ said Daniel Nisman, president of the Levantine Group, which consults on Middle East security issues. “Reducing tensions with Jordan will transfer to [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas.”

But while Jordan, despite the diplomatic protest, continues to share key interests in peace with Israel, Israel's relations with Mr. Abbas are downright hostile. Netanyahu has focused personal attacks on Abbas throughout the crisis, accusing him of incitement. And a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which many analysts consider a bulwark against violence, is not in the offing.

“Politically it’s challenging. The political tension between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is quite high after the collapse of the peace process and the Gaza War,’’ says Mike Herzog, a former Israeli negotiator.  “It’s not as if the Israeli and Palestinian leadership can coordinate a de-escalation.”

Nevertheless, Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s new foreign affairs chief, said Friday that the surge in violence in Jerusalem made it critical for Israelis and Palestinians to quickly find a way back to the negotiating table, Reuters reported.

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Speaking after talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Federica Mogherini said the European Union stood with Israel when it came to defending its citizens, but that the unrest was a serious concern.

"The risk of growing tensions here in Jerusalem ... is that, if we do not move forward on the political track, we will go back, and back again to violence," the Italian told reporters during her first official visit to the region. "That's why I see an urgency in moving forward on the dialogue."

The last talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in April after months of largely fruitless negotiation, with the Palestinians angry at the continued building of Jewish settlements in occupied territory, and Israel furious at attempts to bring the Islamist group Hamas, which officially denies Israel's right to exist, into the Palestinian government.

Some right-wing Israeli politicians have called for the government to lift its ban on Jews praying on the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, calls seen as inciting Muslim rage. On Friday, one of Israel’s leading rabbinic authorities condemned such calls.

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, said at the funeral Friday of the second victim from Wednesday’s hit-and-run attack that for Jews to ascend to the Temple Mount represents a grave violation that leads to the spilling of Jewish blood. He said that “junior league” rabbis who permit such action are “pouring oil on fire.”