REUTERS - Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced Israel on Wednesday for what he called its "insult" to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque in connection with Israeli actions at one of Islam's holiest places.
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Israeli-Palestinian strife has risen sharply in recent weeks as Arab states and Palestinians have accused Israeli forces of violations at the mosque.
"The Zionist regime's crimes in Palestine and repeated insult of the sacred sanctuary of the al-Aqsa Mosque ... are the foremost problem for Muslims," Khamenei was quoted as saying by his official website.
Khamenei described Israeli behavior towards Palestinians as the "ultimate degree of ruthlessness and evil."
Israel captured the site when it seized East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War. It left Al-Aqsa under the religious control of Muslim authorities, but Palestinians fear that control is being eroded by increasing visits by Jewish groups.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said last week that Israel was committed to maintaining the status quo and that Palestinian "rioters" would not be allowed to prevent Jews visiting the area. Jews refer to the area as Temple Mount, where an ancient Jewish temple once stood, and it is the most sacred place in Judaism.
In another passage in the statement, Khamenei appeared to blame Saudi authorities for a Sept. 11 crane collapse onto Mecca's Grand Mosque that killed 107 hajj pilgrims.
"It's true those who passed away in this incident found salvation and rejoined God ... but this will not take the responsibility off the shoulders of those who should provide security for pilgrims," Khamenei said.
The incident, which happened in a dust storm days before the annual hajj pilgrimage in the city, was embarrassing to the country's ruling Al Saud dynasty because it presents itself as the custodian of Islam's most sacred places.
An initial Saudi government investigation into the incident found that Saudi Arabia's largest contractor, Saudi Binladin Group, had not secured it in accordance with its instruction manual.