Israeli police release top Muslim cleric in the Holy Land

Mufti Mohammed Hussein holds a press conference in east Jerusalem on February 2, 2012. Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

Last Updated May 8, 2013 4:44 PM EDT

JERUSALEMIsraeli 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.

Al-Qaradawi is a prominent scholar and Qatar-based cleric who is widely respected in the Muslim world, and his visit emboldens Hamas. Visits by leading figures have been rare in Hamas-run Gaza, and al-Qaradawi's trip is expected to help break the diplomatic isolation that Gaza has been under through years of blockades enforced by Israel and Egypt.

The emir of the Gulf state Qatar visited last year, and Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced his intention to visit later this month, despite a U.S. plea that he delay the trip so as not to harm efforts to broker a reconciliation between Turkey and Israel.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh kissed al-Qaradawi's right hand upon his arrival, calling him "the grand imam of modern Islam and the grand imam of the Arab spring." Hundreds of Hamas supporters waved to his passing convoy.

"It is a great moment for me to meet with you, the people of Palestine, and all the components of Gaza society," al-Qaradawi said in a speech at a welcoming ceremony. But he also acknowledged that he was being hosted by just one part of what is a divided Palestinian society, saying that he hoped to meet with "all Palestinians" on his next visit.

On, Thursday he was scheduled to talk with Haniyeh and Hamas cabinet ministers, attend a demonstration for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, visit the home of Hamas cleric Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated in a 2004 Israeli airstrike, and address a public rally.

The rival Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank was angered by the visit, claiming it served to strengthen the Palestinians' bitter political division.

"Any visit that carries a political significance, that acknowledges the legitimacy of Hamas in Gaza, is considered harmful and against the interest of the Palestinian people," said Mahmoud Al Habash, minister of religious affairs in the West Bank.

There were mixed reactions to the cleric's visit in Gaza.

Palestinian faction leaders affiliated with the West Bank Palestinian leaders' secular Fatah party as well as heads of civil society groups refused to participate in al-Qaradawi's welcome reception. Among other things, they objected to what they said was the cleric's support of U.S. involvement in the Libyan uprising and the Syrian civil war.

"After he was rejected in most Arab countries for blessing the U.S. intervention in Libya and Syria ... it seems that this man is coming to Gaza to clean his record and seek indulgences," Gaza political analyst Ibrahim Abrash wrote on his blog.

Also Wednesday, Israel released two Palestinian prisoners of the Islamic Jihad militant group who were waging three-month long hunger strikes in Israeli custody. An Associated Press photographer witnessed Tarik Qadan, 40, and Jafar Izzideen, 47, being released from custody. They reached a deal with Israel by which their six-month detention would not be renewed. Israel's army said the release was for humanitarian reasons.

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