Jerusalem – Palestinians clashed with Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem before dawn on Friday as thousands of people gathered for prayers during the holy month of Ramadan. Doctors said at least 152 Palestinians were injured.
The holy site, which is sacred to Jews and Muslims, has often been the epicenter of Israeli-Palestinian unrest, and tensions have already escalated amid a recent spate 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. This year, Ramadan coincides with Passover, a major Jewish week-long holiday beginning on Friday at sundown, and Christian Holy Week, which culminates on Easter Sunday. The holiday is expected to draw tens of thousands of worshipers to Jerusalem’s Old City, home to major sites sacred to all three religions.
A few hours after the start of the clashes, the police announced that they had put an end to the violence and arrested “hundreds” of suspects. They said the mosque was reopened and Friday noon prayers would be held as usual. Tens of thousands of people were expected.
But Al Jazeera reported that the director of the mosque had called on the masses to gather there and “defend it” as they performed Friday midday prayers. Local media, alwatanvoicebrk, tweeted that 50,000 worshipers gathered for midday prayers.
Israeli authorities said they had earlier negotiated with Muslim leaders to ensure calm and allow prayers, but Palestinian youths threw stones at police, sparking violence. Palestinian witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said a small group of Palestinians threw stones at police, who then forced their way into the compound, sparking a more confrontation large.
Videos circulating online showed Palestinians throwing rocks and fireworks and police firing tear gas and stun grenades at the sprawling esplanade surrounding the mosque. Others showed worshipers barricading themselves inside the mosque.
Later that morning Israeli police entered the mosque and arrested people. Israeli security forces rarely enter the building, and when they do, Palestinians view it as a major escalation.
The Palestine Red Crescent Society emergency service said it treated 152 people, many of whom were injured by rubber bullets or stun grenades or beaten with batons. Staffing said one of the guards at the site was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet.
Israel Police said three officers were injured by “massive stone throwing”, and two others were evacuated from the scene for treatment.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said dozens of masked men carrying Palestinian and Hamas flags marched to the compound before dawn on Friday and gathered stones and other items in anticipation of unrest.
“Police were forced into the field to disperse the crowd and remove stones and boulders, to prevent further violence,” he tweeted.
Police said they waited until the prayers were over and the crowd started to disperse. In a statement, he said crowds had begun throwing stones towards the Western Wall, a nearby Jewish holy site, forcing them to take action.
The Palestinians view any major police deployment in Al-Aqsa as a major provocation.
Israel’s National Security Minister Omer Barlev, who oversees the police force, said Israel had “no interest” in the violence at the holy site, but police were forced to confront ” violent elements” who attacked them with stones and metal bars. He said Israel is committed to freedom of worship for Jews and Muslims.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, speaking at a holiday meeting with security officials, said authorities were “working to calm things down on the Temple Mount and throughout Israel. At the same time, we we are ready for any scenario”.
The mosque is the third holiest place in Islam. It is built on a hill in the Old City of Jerusalem, which is the holiest site for the Jews, who call it the Temple Mount because it was the site of Jewish temples in ancient times. It was a major flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian violence for decades and was the epicenter of the 2000-2005 Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
It is known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, or The Noble Sanctuary, Reuters news agency notes.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, home to Al-Aqsa and other major holy sites, in the 1967 war and annexed it in an internationally unrecognized move. The Palestinians want the eastern part of the city to be the capital of a future independent state comprising the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel also captured in the war nearly 55 years ago.
Tensions have skyrocketed in recent weeks following a series of Palestinian bombings that killed 14 people inside Israel. Israel has carried out a wave of arrests and military operations across the occupied West Bank, sparking clashes with Palestinians.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said a 17-year-old died on Friday morning from injuries sustained during clashes with Israeli forces in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank, the day before.
At least 25 Palestinians have been killed in the recent spate of violence, according to an Associated Press tally, many of whom had carried out the attacks or were involved in the clashes, but also an unarmed woman and a lawyer who appear to have been killed by mistake.
Weeks of protests and clashes in Jerusalem during Ramadan last year eventually sparked an 11-day war with Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules the Gaza Strip.
Israel lifted restrictions and took other steps to try to calm tensions ahead of Ramadan, but military attacks and raids sparked a new round of unrest.
Hamas condemned what it called “brutal attacks” on Al-Aqsa worshipers by Israeli forces, saying Israel would bear “all the consequences”. He called on all Palestinians to “stand with our people in Jerusalem”.
Earlier this week, Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza called on Palestinians to camp at Al-Aqsa Mosque over the weekend. Palestinians have long feared that Israel is considering taking over the site or dividing it.
Israeli authorities say they are determined to maintain the status quo, but in recent years nationalist and religious Jews have visited the site in large numbers with police escorts.
In recent weeks, a radical Jewish group had called on people to bring animals to the site to sacrifice for Passover, offering cash rewards to those who succeeded or even tried. Israeli police are working to prevent such activities, but the call has been widely publicized by Palestinians on social media, along with calls for Muslims to prevent any sacrifices.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, issued a statement calling on Muslim leaders to act to stop the violence. He also noted that “making a sacrifice on the Temple Mount today is against the ruling of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.”