UPDATED: U.N. chief urges Israel to exercise restraint in East Jerusalem

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U.N. chief Antonio Guterres believes Israel “must exercise maximum restraint and respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly,” a U.N. spokesman said on Sunday, as tensions rise in East Jerusalem around al Aqsa, Islam’s third-holiest mosque.

“The Secretary-General expresses his deep concern over the continuing violence in occupied East Jerusalem, as well as the possible evictions of Palestinian families from their homes,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.

“He urges Israel to cease demolitions and evictions.”

Guterres urged that the status quo at the holy sites be upheld and respected, Dujarric said.

Palestinian protesters threw rocks and Israeli police fired stun grenades and rubber bullets in clashes outside al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on Monday, as Israel marked the anniversary of its capture of parts of the city in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said more than 275 Palestinians were injured in the violence, and at least 205 of them were taken to hospitals. Several of the Palestinians were in critical condition and police said 12 officers were injured.

Palestinians look on during the nightly protests near Damascus gate of Jerusalem’s old city. EPA-EFE/ATEF SAFADI

Al-Aqsa, Islam’s third-holiest site, has been a focal point of violence in Jerusalem throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The clashes have raised international concern.

Tensions were particularly high as Israel marked “Jerusalem Day”, its annual celebration of the capture of East Jerusalem and the walled Old City that is home to Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy places.

In an effort to ease the situation, Israeli police said they had banned Jewish groups from paying Jerusalem Day visits to the holy plaza that houses al-Aqsa, and which Jews revere as the site of biblical Jewish temples.

Police were also considering whether to reroute a traditional Jerusalem Day march in which thousands of Israeli flag-waving Jewish youth walk through the Old City’s Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter.

Police fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at hundreds of Palestinians who hurled rocks at them on al-Aqsa’s stone-strewn plaza, witnesses said.

The violence at the holy compound abated several hours after it began and witnesses said Israeli police had begun allowing Palestinians over the age of 40 to enter.

In public remarks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was determined to uphold law and order in Jerusalem while preserving “freedom of worship and tolerance for all”.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, accused “Israeli occupation forces” of conducting a “brutal raid” at al-Aqsa.

Israel views all of Jerusalem as its capital, including the eastern part that it annexed in a move that has not won international recognition. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a state they seek in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

PLANNED EVICTIONS

Tensions have also been fuelled by the planned evictions of several Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.

Israel’s attorney-general secured a deferment on Sunday of a Supreme Court hearing on Monday in the long-running evictions case that had threatened to stoke more violence.

A lower court had found in favour of Jewish settlers’ claim to the land on which the Palestinians’ homes are located, a decision seen by Palestinians as an attempt by Israel to drive them out of contested Jerusalem.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan expressed “serious concerns” about the situation in Jerusalem, including the potential evictions, in a call with his Israeli counterpart on Sunday.

Photo: An Israeli policeman (L) points a gun at a Palestinian man (C) next to a wounded Orthodox Jewish man (R) that crashed his car near the Lions’ Gate, as clashes continue at the Temple Mount in the old city of Jerusalem. EPA-EFE/ABIR SULTAN