JERUSALEM - Palestinians clashed with Israeli police at Jerusalem's flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound on Sunday just hours before the start of the Jewish New Year, police and witnesses said.
The clashes came with tensions running high after Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon last week outlawed two Muslim groups that confront Jewish visitors to the compound, which is holy to both faiths.
Palestinian witnesses said police entered the mosque, Islam's third-holiest site, and caused damage. Police only said they closed the doors to the mosque to lock in rioters throwing stones, fireworks and other objects.
Authorities have used the same tactic in the past in a bid to restore calm and which has seen them briefly enter.
According to police, the rioters had barricaded themselves in the mosque overnight with the aim of disrupting visits by Jews to the site ahead of the start of New Year celebrations on Sunday evening.
"Masked protesters who were inside the mosque threw stones and fireworks at police," a police statement said. "Suspect pipes that could be filled with homemade explosives were also found at the entry to the mosque."
A Muslim witness accused police of entering the mosque much further than would have been needed to close the doors and of causing damage, saying prayer mats were partially burned.
Police said calm later returned to the mosque complex, though clashes continued outside in the narrow alleyways of Jerusalem's Old City, with police firing tear gas and stun grenades.
"The police went inside and we are prevented from entering," Khadijeh Khweis, who said she is a member of one of the two Muslim groups banned last week, told AFP amid protests in the Old City.
"They are chasing us with (stun) grenades and it's been like that since the morning. We could only pray in front of the doors (leading to the complex)."
An AFP journalist saw a number of people being detained and heavy police deployments in the Old City.
- Site of frequent clashes -
The defence minister's move last week banned the Murabitat and Murabitun groups, which he said was necessary to "defend the security of the state, the well-being of the public and public order".
His office said the groups were "a main factor in creating the tension and violence" at the mosque compound, venerated by Jews as the Temple Mount, and in Jerusalem at large.
Non-Muslims are allowed to visit the compound, but Jews are forbidden from praying or displaying national symbols for fear of triggering tensions with Muslim worshippers.
Muslims fear Israel will seek to change rules governing the site, with far-right Jewish groups pushing for more access and even efforts by fringe organisations to erect a new temple.
Israel seized east Jerusalem, where Al-Aqsa is located, in the Six Day War of 1967 and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.
Al-Aqsa is the site of frequent clashes between police and Muslim activists.
In late July, Israeli police entered Al-Aqsa as they clashed with Palestinians angered by Jews' access to the compound on an annual day of Jewish mourning.
The July clashes marked the first time Israeli security forces had entered the mosque since November, when clashes with worshippers also erupted.