DOHA - The leader of the Palestinian group Hamas on Thursday called on Muslims to defend the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, saying Israel was trying to seize the site, revered in Islam and Judaism and focus of a Palestinian uprising in 2000.
Khaled Meshaal, speaking in the Qatari capital Doha where he lives in exile, said: "We call on all our people inside the country to hurry up to al-Aqsa to defend it."
Palestinians, fearing Israel planned to restrict access to the site for Muslims, clashed with Israeli police there earlier this week when security forces arrived for what a police spokesman said was an attempt to stop them from "staging a riot and disrupting visits".
Meshaal said the Israeli government was taking advantage of Arab preoccupation with regional turmoil, particularly in Syria and Iraq, to try to take over al-Aqsa, the third holiest shrine in Islam which is also revered by Jews as the former site of a Biblical temple.
"We call on the nation to be angry and to send a message of painful anger to the world that the Palestinian people, the Arab and Muslim nation, will not be silent at the Israeli crime," Meshaal said.
Palestinians accuse Israel of trying to restrict their access to the mosque in Jerusalem's walled Old City to allow Jews to pray there. Orthodox Jews are pressing for easier access to the compound.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied there are any moves to restrict Palestinian access to the compound and blamed "Palestinian extremists" for the violence.
A visit in 2000 to the site by Israeli politician Ariel Sharon, after US-brokered peace talks broke down, was followed by a five-year Palestinian uprising.
Asked if he was worried his call may lead to a new conflict soon after Palestinians in the Gaza Strip endured a 50-day war with Israel that killed more than 2,000 Palestinians, Meshaal said: "Nobody wants a war, but it's our right to resist and preserve our rights. We are under occupation ... We have been resisting for one hundred years and will continue.
"Al-Aqsa is worth us becoming martyrs for, and anyone who can carry a weapon in the region should go and defend it, as this is the true meaning of jihad."
Hamas, founded in 1988 in the Gaza Strip, has grown to be one of the main Palestinian political and military groups. Last August it was one of the main groups that fought a seven-week war with Israel in the Gaza Strip.