Senior Israeli lawmaker warns of "religious war" over Jerusalem moves

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: Jewish visitors gesture as Israeli security forces secure the area at the compound that houses Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A senior Israeli lawmaker said on Monday the country risked "religious war" after a court ruled in favour of Jews who had tried to pray at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and as nationalists planned a march near the flashpoint site.

Palestinian factions have denounced Israeli moves in Jerusalem's Old City, the heart of their decades-old conflict, and reiterated threats that echoed their warnings in the run-up to the May 2021 war in Gaza.

Jerusalem Magistrates' Court on Sunday rescinded a restraining order against three Jews who had prayed while visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

Jews revere the site as vestige of two ancient temples, but are barred from worship there under an Israeli pact with Muslim authorities. The mosque is Islam's third-holiest shrine.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's office said it would appeal the ruling. Bennett, who heads a weak coalition government, must also decide whether to green-light an annual Israeli flag march in the Old City next Sunday.

Ram Ben-Barak, chairman of parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, came out against the lower court ruling and voiced concern about the planned route of the march, which includes the Muslim quarter of the Old City.

"I think that during this sensitive period care must be taken," he told Kan radio. "We should not, with our own hands, cause a religious war here or all kinds of provocations that are liable to ignite the Middle East."

The flag march celebrates Israel's capture of the Old City in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel deems all of Jerusalem its capital - a status not recognised internationally. The Palestinians want to establish their own capital in the city.

Weeks of clashes in East Jerusalem last year, including in the Al-Aqsa compound, helped ignite a war in Gaza last May that killed at least 250 Palestinians and 13 people in Israel.

After months of relative calm, tensions have risen again in recent weeks, leaving many dead, with repeated raids by Israeli forces in the West Bank, and attacks by militants on Israelis.

Police and Palestinians also clashed in the mosque area last month on numerous occasions during the holy month of Ramadan.

Ben-Barak, whose centrist party is in the coalition, predicted that Bennett would wait until the night before the march to decide on its final route to prevent possible conflict.

"It is not always worth paying this price for a demonstration that is all about spectacle and little else."

Speaking in Gaza, a senior official with Islamic Jihad, Khaled Al-Batsh, said that going ahead with the flag march would be a "message of war" against Palestinians.

"The Palestinians will confront the flag march and the resistance will do all it should to protect the Al Aqsa mosque and the sacred sites," Batsh said in a statement.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Nidal Al Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Crispian Balmer)