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Israeli police ask court to reorder closure of Al-Aqsa gate as tensions rise

Members of Islamic endowment overseeing holy site have said they'll defy original order blocking access to compound
Palestinian Muslims pray during Friday noon prayers inside al-Rahmeh Gate in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound (AFP)

Israeli police asked a court on Wednesday to reissue an order blocking access to a gate of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a day after the endowment in charge of the holy site said it would defy the court's original mandate.

Palestinians have called for continued protest prayers to be held this Friday after Israeli military police arrested a Palestinian guard at the compound and a group of Israeli settlers entered the religious site, according to local reports.

"We urge our people to go to Al-Aqsa and break all the occupation's restrictions on it and stop the attempt of changing the status quo that harms Al-Aqsa's historic and Islamic status," Hamas said in a statement on Wednesday.

Tensions have been riding high at the mosque compound since 14 February, when members of the Waqf, which oversees the site, opened the al-Rahmeh and Tawbeh gates, sealed off by the Israelis in 2003, and prayed in the hall just inside the gates.

Israeli authorities responded by putting new locks on a barrier leading to the gates, an act perceived by Palestinians as an attempt to change the religious status quo at Al-Aqsa and allow Jewish worshippers to pray there.

Thousands of Palestinian demonstrators open long-closed Al-Aqsa gate
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After weeks of protests at the gate and the arrest of several high-profile Palestinians, this week a Jerusalem court gave the Waqf until 10 March to explain why the closure order should be lifted, Israeli watchdog group Ir Amim said in a statement. 

But Waqf members have said they will not submit to the court's order. "We do not recognise the sovereignty of the occupation courts on Al-Aqsa Mosque and Rahmeh will remain open," Hatem Abdel Qader, a Waqf member, told Palestinian media on Tuesday.

Tens of Palestinians were arrested in the past three weeks, including the Waqf president and his deputy. Many of those arrested have been released and then banned from entering the Al-Aqsa compound by Israeli police as tensions heightened in the Old City.

Jews believe that the compound stands atop where the Second Temple once stood, and some far-right Israeli activists have advocated for the destruction of the Al-Aqsa compound to make way for a Third Temple.

Israeli settlers regularly enter the Al-Aqsa compound - the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina - accompanied by Israeli forces, often performing Jewish prayers on the site despite regulations against non-Muslim worship at the site. 

The visits are seen as an attempt to cultivate support for an increased Jewish presence at the site to change the religious status quo of the compound agreed between Israel and Jordan, the custodian of Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.

In 2017, Palestinians in Jerusalem protested for two weeks after Israel installed metal detectors at the compound's gates when two police officers were killed.