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In Israel Prayer mats, police and clashes outside Jerusalem's Old City

They come every day, spreading out prayer mats in a Jerusalem street under the watchful eyes of Israeli police and refusing to enter one of the world's most sensitive holy sites.

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A Palestinian Muslim prays in front of a gate to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem on July 26, 2017, as a tense standoff simmers over the holy site play

A Palestinian Muslim prays in front of a gate to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem on July 26, 2017, as a tense standoff simmers over the holy site

(AFP)

They come every day, spreading out prayer mats in a Jerusalem street under the watchful eyes of Israeli police and refusing to enter one of the world's most sensitive holy sites.

Nearly two weeks into a standoff over Israeli security measures at the Haram al-Sharif compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, the days have developed a rhythm.

Daytime prayers are small -- usually a few hundred worshippers gather at the Lions' Gate entrance to the walled Old City.

Supporters distribute food and drinks to the protestors.

Dozens of heavily armed Israeli police look on in silence, some smoking or fiddling with their phones.

As nightfall approaches, the tension grows.

Palestinians have refused to enter the site, which includes the Al-Asqa Mosque compound and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock, over new security measures imposed after three Israeli Arabs shot dead two policemen nearby on July 14.

Israeli security forces watch as Palestinian Muslim worshippers gather to pray in Jerusalem's Old City on July 26, 2017 play

Israeli security forces watch as Palestinian Muslim worshippers gather to pray in Jerusalem's Old City on July 26, 2017

(AFP)

Israel introduced metal detectors at the gates, triggering outrage from Palestinians and their religious leaders who see the move as an Israeli attempt to assert more control over the site.

Protestors have been holding prayers nearby ever since. The metal detectors were removed on Tuesday, but Palestinians want all the new measures cancelled and have continued their boycott.

A group of around 50 women travel more than 200 kilometres (125 miles) each day to Jerusalem from Nazareth in northern Israel, leaving at 6:00 am and returning in the evening.

"As we are a people living under occupation they must give us freedom of religion, freedom to enter to holy places, but not in humiliation," said Umm Zuhair, who was part of a women's protest outside.

Around 7:30 pm the crowd of worshippers starts to grow.

By the time of the final prayer -- around 9:00 pm -- there are several thousand Palestinians on the street near the Lions' Gate.

Most simply pray but some of the younger men taunt security forces in riot gear.

Young Palestinians throw firecrackers, prompting police to charge at the crowd and fire sound grenades.

On Tuesday night police fired a series of the grenades to disperse the crowd, and a Palestinian journalist was arrested.

Separate conversations

As is usually the case, Israelis and Palestinians are having separate conversations.

A Palestinian distributes food donated to support demonstrators who have kept a vigil for over a week outside the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, on July 26, 2017 play

A Palestinian distributes food donated to support demonstrators who have kept a vigil for over a week outside the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, on July 26, 2017

(AFP)

For Israel, the new measures are about security. It says the July 14 attackers smuggled weapons into the site and emerged from it to attack officers.

For Palestinians, the dispute centres on sovereignty.

Israeli officials point out security checks are standard in many other places, including the Western Wall -- the holiest site where Jews can pray.

"The ability of Muslims, next to Jews, next to tourists that are coming from all over the world to this holy place is dependent on the security that Israel is supplying," Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely told the BBC.

The compound is the third holiest site in Islam, believed to be where the Prophet Mohammed made his night journey to heaven.

It is also the most sacred in Judaism as the location of the first and second Jewish temples, destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans.

Under a decades-old agreement, only Muslims are allowed to pray at the inside the compound, though anyone can visit, including Jews.

Palestinians fear Israel is seeking to change the status quo, pointing out that Israel controls predominantly Palestinian east Jerusalem, seized in 1967 and including Al Aqsa.

Israel later annexed east Jerusalem in a move never recognised by the international community. But it says it has no intention of changing the status quo of the city's holy sites.

Palestinian Muslim worshippers pray outside Jerusalem's Old City on July 25, 2017 after Muslim officials said worshippers should continue to boycott the Al-Aqsa mosque compound play

Palestinian Muslim worshippers pray outside Jerusalem's Old City on July 25, 2017 after Muslim officials said worshippers should continue to boycott the Al-Aqsa mosque compound

(AFP)

Such is the unique nature of the Old City, roughly one square kilometre, that the Lions' Gate is only metres from where Christians believe Jesus carried his cross en route to crucifixion.

In the rest of the Old City the atmosphere is subdued.

"Things were improving in recent months but with what happened at Al-Aqsa of course we have seen a drop" in tourist numbers, said Hovsep, who works in a shop selling Christian and Jewish trinkets.

Last Friday after the main weekly Muslim prayers, three Palestinians were killed during major protests in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

Later that night, a Palestinian sneaked into a West Bank settlement and stabbed three Israelis to death.

With another round of Friday prayers approaching, fears are growing of another round of bloodshed.

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