Israel tightens security for first Friday prayers since Trump plan

3 min

Jerusalem (AFP)

Israeli police increased their presence in Jerusalem's Old City, ahead of the first Friday prayers at the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque since US President Donald Trump unveiled a controversial peace plan.

The plan released on Tuesday was seen as heavily biased towards Israel and was angrily rejected by Palestinians, with one of the key bones of contention being its classification of Jerusalem as Israel's "undivided capital."

Palestinians have long seen the city's eastern sector, which was occupied by Israel in 1967, as the capital of their future state.

At the Al-Aqsa compound in east Jerusalem, a group of Palestinians gathered after dawn prayers and "began a procession with nationalist calls," Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

Police "responded and dispersed the gathering," the spokesman added.

Thousands of Palestinians were expected to attend the main prayers at noon, which are often a rallying point for demonstrations.

The Al-Aqsa mosque is Islam's third holiest site but is also revered by Jews as the location of their Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

Rosenfeld said "heightened security" measures would be in place across the Old City and "police units will respond if necessary".

The Trump plan gives Israel the green light to annex the strategic Jordan Valley, which constitutes some 30 percent of the West Bank, as well as all Israeli settlements, which now number more than 200, including those in annexed east Jerusalem.

The settlements are home to some 600,000 Israelis but are considered illegal under international law.

Immediately after Trump presented the plan flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, officials said they would swiftly submit an annexation bill to cabinet on Sunday.

But the situation seemed less clear on Friday, after Trump's adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner seemed to row back from initial comments by US ambassador David Friedman that Israel could move ahead with annexation immediately.

Jared said a decision would be best left until a new government has been formed after a general election scheduled for March 2, even though both major parties support it.

- Gaza protests, rockets -

Clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces in the West Bank have left at least 30 Palestinians wounded since Tuesday, although the demonstrations have mostly been small.

In Hamas-controlled Gaza, thousands gathered for demonstrations this week.

Many more donned badges proclaiming "no to the deal of the century".

There has been some rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, but on nothing like the scale of barrages launched during multiple flare-ups last year.

Israel carried out air strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza early Friday after three rockets were fired the previous evening, causing neither casualties nor damage, the army said.

One rocket was fired on Wednesday evening drawing similar retaliation.

Hamas and Israel have fought three wars since 2008 but over the past year the Islamists have gradually shaped an informal truce with Israel, under which the Jewish state has slightly eased its crippling blockade of Gaza in exchange for calm.

- Quest for Arab support -

The Palestinians have sought to rally international support against the plan, which they see as illegal and a violation of their rights.

"What we're trying to do here is to get international consensus behind us, behind president Mahmud Abbas and his determination to achieve peace," said Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.

But there was a muted response, even within the Arab world.

Both Egypt and the Gulf Arab states held off on any immediate criticism of their US ally, saying they would study the plan's contents.

Those governments have quietly moved closer to Israel in recent years amid shared hostility towards Iran.

Abbas will try to rally opposition at an emergency meeting of the Arab League in Cairo on Saturday.