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Israel releases top Muslim cleric in the Holy Land

Thursday - 5/9/2013, 3:24am  ET

FILE - In this Sept. 19, 2006 file photo, Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein, pauses during a media conference in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Israeli police detained Mufti Hussein, a top cleric in the Palestinian territories, and are questioning him over his role in disturbances at a holy Jerusalem shrine Tuesday, May 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen, File)

JOSEF FEDERMAN
Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israeli police detained the top Muslim cleric in the Holy Land Wednesday in a rare crackdown on a leading religious figure, questioning him for several hours before releasing him without charge.

Later in the day, in the Gaza Strip, an influential Muslim cleric from Qatar received a hero's welcome in a high-profile visit that deepened the bitter division between Gaza's hardline Islamist rulers and the West Bank's Western-backed Palestinian leaders.

The detention of the mufti of Jerusalem, which followed recent unrest at a disputed holy site in Jerusalem, drew harsh condemnation from Palestinian leaders and neighboring Jordan and threatened to complicate U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's latest effort to restart Mideast peace talks.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said mufti Mohammed Hussein was questioned for six hours in connection to "recent disturbances" on a hilltop compound in Jerusalem's Old City that is revered by Jews and Muslims. This included "incitement, disturbances and public disorder."

Hussein was released without being charged, Rosenfeld said. He did not elaborate, but another Israeli official said the Muslim cleric was issued a warning and told to lower tensions a day after Muslim worshippers threw rocks and chairs at tourists visiting the hilltop compound that houses the Al Aqsa Mosque.

The Israeli official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media. Hussein, who was appointed mufti in 2006, could not be reached for comment.

The compound is one of the region's most sensitive sites. It is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, built above the ruins of the two biblical Jewish Temples. Muslims call it the Haram as-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary. It is home to the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, from which Muslims believe their Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. The iconic gold-topped Dome of the Rock sits next to the mosque.

The conflicting claims to the site lie at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and any acts seen as upsetting the delicate status quo risk setting off violence. Palestinians see visits by Israelis at the site as a provocation. Israeli steps to quell Palestinian disturbances there have led to riots in the past.

The mufti of Jerusalem is the top cleric in charge of Jerusalem's Islamic holy places, including the Al Aqsa compound. Hussein's predecessor, Ekrima Sabri, was detained for several hours in 2002, at the height of the Palestinian uprising against Israel, on suspicion of incitement for suicide attacks.

Hussein has been known as a relative moderate, with close ties to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. While Jordan, which controlled east Jerusalem before Israel captured it in 1967, remains the custodial authority over the Al Aqsa compound, the Palestinians appoint the mufti.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who appointed Hussein, condemned his detention. "Arresting the mufti is a stark challenge to the freedom of worship," Abbas said in a statement released by the official Palestinian news agency Wafa.

The Jordanian foreign ministry also denounced the detention, and legislators demanded the kingdom's envoy be recalled from Tel Aviv.

The detention was a blow to Kerry's efforts to restart peace talks, which have been stalled since late 2008. The Palestinians have refused to negotiate while Israel builds settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as parts of a future independent state and say settlement construction must halt.

Kerry has been shuttling between the Israeli and Palestinian sides in recent weeks in hopes of finding a formula to restart talks. In Rome, he was meeting the chief Israeli negotiator, Tzipi Livni.

The incident occurred as Israelis marked Jerusalem Day, which commemorates the anniversary of Israel's capture of east Jerusalem. The city's eastern sector is home to the Old City, where key Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites are located.

About 300 Palestinians gathered for a Jerusalem Day protest waving Palestinian flags and scuffling with dozens of Israeli protesters. Israeli police spokesman Rosenfeld said police arrested 10 Palestinians for gathering in an illegal demonstration and causing public disorder.

There was heavy police presence to guard Jerusalem Day marchers in the parade scheduled to go past a Palestinian area of the Old City.

In the Gaza Strip Wednesday, influential Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi arrived for his first visit to Gaza as a top cleric, making one of the most high-profile visits to the Palestinian territory since the Islamic group Hamas seized control in 2007.

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