Jerusalem – Palestinians clashed with Israeli police at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem before dawn on Friday, as thousands gathered for prayers in the holy month of Ramadan. Medics said at least 152 Palestinians were wounded.
The holy site, which is sacred to Jews and Muslims, has often been the epicenter of Israeli-Palestinian unrest, and tensions have already risen amid the latest wave of violence. Clashes at the site last year helped spark an 11-day war with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
The clashes come at a particularly sensitive time. Ramadan this year coincides with Passover, a major week-long Jewish holiday that begins on Friday at sunset, and Christian Holy Week, which culminates on Easter Sunday. The holidays are expected to bring tens of thousands of believers to the Old City of Jerusalem, home to the major holy sites of all three religions.
Hours after the clashes began, the police announced that they had put an end to the violence and arrested “hundreds” of suspects. They said the mosque had reopened and that Friday afternoon prayers would take place as usual. Tens of thousands of people expected.
But Al Jazeera reported that the mosque’s director called on the masses to gather there and “defend” it during Friday afternoon prayers.
The Israeli authorities said that they had earlier conducted negotiations with Muslim leaders to ensure calm and allow prayers to be performed, but Palestinian youths threw stones at the police, which led to the outbreak of violence. Palestinian eyewitnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said that a small group of Palestinians threw stones at the police, who then forcefully entered the compound, which led to a wider confrontation.
Videos circulating online showed Palestinians throwing stones and fireworks and police firing tear gas and sound bombs into the sprawling plaza surrounding the mosque. Others showed worshipers barricading themselves inside the mosque.
Later in the morning, the occupation police stormed the mosque and arrested the citizens. Israeli security forces rarely enter the building, and when they do, Palestinians view it as a major escalation.
The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service said it treated 152 people, many of whom were injured by rubber bullets, stun grenades, or beaten with batons. The Waqf said that one of the guards at the site was hit in the eye by a rubber bullet.
The Israeli police said that three officers were wounded in “intensive stone throwing,” while two were evacuated from the scene for treatment.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said dozens of masked men waving the Palestinian and Hamas flags marched to the compound before dawn on Friday, collecting stones and other items in anticipation of the unrest.
“The police were forced to storm the place to disperse the demonstrators and remove stones and stones in order to avoid further violence,” she wrote on Twitter.
Police said they waited until the prayers were over and the crowds began to disperse. It said in a statement that crowds began throwing stones in the direction of the Western Wall, a nearby holy Jewish site, forcing them to move.
Palestinians view any significant police presence at Al-Aqsa as a major provocation.
Israel’s National Security Minister Omar Bar-Lev, who oversees the police force, said Israel “has no interest” in the violence at the holy site, but that police had to confront “violent elements” who attacked them with stones and metal bars. He said that Israel is committed to freedom of worship for Jews and Muslims alike.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, speaking at a holiday gathering with security officials, said authorities were “working to calm things down on the Temple Mount and throughout Israel. At the same time, we are ready for any scenario.”
The mosque is the third holiest site in Islam. It was built on top of a hill in Jerusalem’s Old City, and is the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount because it was the site of synagogues in ancient times. It has been a major flashpoint of Israeli-Palestinian violence for decades and was the epicenter of the 2000-2005 Palestinian uprising.
The Reuters news agency indicates that it is known to Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Sharif or the Noble Sanctuary.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem, home to Al-Aqsa and other major holy sites, in the 1967 war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. The Palestinians want the eastern part of the city to be the capital of their future independent state, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel also occupied during the war some 55 years ago.
Tensions have risen in recent weeks after a series of attacks by Palestinians killed 14 people inside Israel. Israel carried out a wave of arrests and military operations across the occupied West Bank, which led to clashes with Palestinians.
The Palestinian Ministry of Health said that a 17-year-old man died at dawn Friday of wounds sustained during clashes with Israeli forces in Jenin in the occupied West Bank the day before.
At least 25 Palestinians were killed in the latest wave of violence, according to Associated Press counts, many of whom carried out attacks or participated in the clashes, but also an unarmed woman and a lawyer apparently killed by mistake.
Weeks of protests and clashes in Jerusalem during Ramadan last year sparked an 11-day war with Hamas, the Islamist armed group that rules the Gaza Strip.
Israel lifted restrictions and took other steps to try to calm tensions ahead of Ramadan, but the attacks and military raids triggered another downward spiral of unrest.
Hamas condemned what it described as “brutal attacks” on worshipers at Al-Aqsa by Israeli forces, saying that Israel would bear “all the consequences”. She called on all Palestinians to “stand by our people in Jerusalem.”
Earlier this week, Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza called on Palestinians to camp at Al-Aqsa Mosque over the weekend. Palestinians have long feared that Israel plans to seize or divide the site.
Israeli authorities say they are committed to maintaining the status quo, but in recent years nationalist and religious Jews have visited the site in large numbers with police escorts.
In recent weeks, an ultra-Orthodox group has called on people to bring animals to the site to sacrifice for Passover, offering cash rewards to those who succeeded or even tried. The Israeli police are working to prevent such activities, but the call has been widely circulated by Palestinians on social media, along with calls for Muslims to prevent any sacrifices from taking place.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, Rabbi of the Western Wall, issued a statement calling on Muslim leaders to take action to stop the violence. She also indicated that “presenting sacrifices to the Temple Mount today contradicts the decision of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.”