Jerusalem: Palestinians clashed with Israeli police at the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem on Friday as thousands gathered for prayers during Ramadan. Medics said more than 150 Palestinians were wounded in the most serious violence at the site in nearly a year.
The holy site, which is sacred to Jews and Muslims, has often been the epicentre of Israeli-Palestinian unrest, and tensions were already heightened amid a recent 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 weeklong Jewish holiday beginning Friday at sundown, and Christian holy week, which culminates on Easter Sunday. The holidays are expected to bring tens of thousands of faithful into Jerusalem’s Old City, home to major sites sacred to all three religions.
Hours after the clashes began, the police said they had put an end to the violence and arrested “hundreds’’ of suspects. The mosque was re-opened, and some 60,000 people attended the main Friday prayers midday, according to the Islamic endowment that administers the site.
After prayers, thousands of Palestinians marched around the esplanade, chanting “with our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Al Aqsa,’’ in addition to slogans in support of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza. Some carried Palestinian and Hamas flags.
Israeli authorities said that before the violence broke out they had held negotiations with Muslim leaders to ensure calm. But the police say Palestinians stockpiled rocks and other objects inside the compound and hurled stones at the Mughrabi Gate, which leads to the Western Wall — a major Jewish holy site — triggering the violence.
Palestinian witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns, said a small group of Palestinians threw rocks at police, who then entered the compound in force, setting off a wider conflagration. Palestinians view any large deployment of police at Al Aqsa as a provocation.
Palestinians threw rocks and fireworks, and police fired tear gas and stun grenades on the sprawling esplanade surrounding the mosque. A large group of Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the mosque as they fought Israeli security forces.
Israeli police later entered the mosque and arrested people inside. Israeli security forces rarely enter the building, and when they do it is seen by Palestinians as a major escalation.
The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service said it treated 152 people, many of them wounded by rubber-coated bullets or stun grenades, or beaten with batons. The endowment said one of the guards at the site was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet.
Reuters video showed officers, some in riot gear, chasing a small number of people after most of the crowd had left.
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said it “holds Israel fully and directly responsible for this crime and its consequences”.
Immediate intervention by the international community is needed to stop Israeli aggression against Al Aqsa mosque and prevent things from going out of control, said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesperson for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
‘Dangerous and condemnable escalation’
The Israeli police said three officers were wounded from “massive stone-throwing,’’ with two evacuated from the scene for treatment.
Neighbouring Jordan, which has custodianship over the holy site, and the Palestinian Authority issued a joint statement accusing Israel of “a dangerous and condemnable escalation that threatens to explode the situation.’’
Israel’s national security minister, Omer Barlev, who oversees the police force, said Israel had “no interest’’ in violence at the holy site but that police were forced to confront “violent elements’’ who attacked them with stones and metal bars. He said Israel was 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 “are working to calm things on the Temple Mount and throughout Israel. At the same time, we are prepared for any scenario.”
The mosque is the third holiest site in Islam. It has been a major flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian violence for decades and was the epicenter of the 2000-2005 Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
Tensions have soared in recent weeks following a series of attacks by Palestinians that killed 14 people inside Israel. Israel has carried out a wave of arrests and military operations across the occupied West Bank, setting off clashes with Palestinians.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said a 17-year-old died early Friday from wounds suffered during clashes with Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Jenin the day before.
At least 25 Palestinians have been killed in the recent wave of violence, according to an Associated Press count, many of whom had carried out attacks or were involved in the clashes, but also an unarmed woman and a lawyer who appears to have been killed by mistake.
Weeks of protests and clashes in and around Al Aqsa during Ramadan last year eventually ignited a fourth Gaza war between Israel and Hamas. This year, Israel has lifted restrictions and taken other steps to try and calm tensions ahead of Ramadan, but the attacks and the military raids have brought about another cycle of unrest.