World Bulletin/News Desk
Islamic Movement in Israel leader Sheikh Raed Salah on Thursday accused the Israeli authorities of "targeting" female Palestinian Muslim worshippers and religious students who had gathered in East Jerusalem's flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound with the aim of defending it from Jewish settlers.
"The Israeli occupation is trying to take revenge on Palestinian female worshippers and religious students by assaulting, detaining or banning them from the compound," Salah was quoted as saying by the Al-Aqsa Foundation for Endowments and Heritage, a Palestinian NGO.
According to a statement released by the NGO, the remarks were made at a meeting in the northern Israeli city of Tiberias with a group of female Jerusalem resident who were banned by Israeli authorities from entering the Al-Aqsa compound.
Since September of last year, Salah himself has been banned from visiting the holy site.
"Israeli escalations specifically targeting women came after they [the Israelis] saw the magnitude of sacrifice offered by [female Muslim worshippers] for the holy site," the firebrand cleric said.
In recent months, the Israeli authorities have banned several Palestinian women from entering the site for periods ranging from two weeks to several months for standing up against repeated intrusions into the site by Jewish settlers.
There are no precise figures for the number of women banned by Israel from entering the holy site.
Tension had already been running high in the Palestinian territories since Israeli authorities briefly closed the Al-Aqsa compound in late October following the shooting of an extremist rabbi in West Jerusalem.
The closure of Al-Aqsa, along with the subsequent killing by the Israeli army of a young Palestinian man suspected of shooting the rabbi, has prompted angry protests by Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
For Muslims, Al-Aqsa represents the world's third holiest site. Jews, for their part, refer to the area as the "Temple Mount," claiming it was the site of two Jewish temples in ancient times.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem during the 1967 Middle East War. It later annexed the holy city in 1980, claiming it as the capital of the self-proclaimed Jewish state in a move never recognized by the international community.
In recent weeks, several Israelis have been killed and injured in a spate of separate Palestinian attacks both inside Israel and in the occupied territories.
Tension has continued to mount in Jerusalem – and in the rest of the occupied West Bank – since the abduction and murder of three Jewish settlers this summer and the subsequent abduction and murder of a Palestinian teenager in East Jerusalem.
Both incidents directly preceded a devastating Israeli military onslaught on the Gaza Strip in July and August that left over 2,160 Palestinians dead – the vast majority of them civilians – and another 11,000 injured.
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