JERUSALEM â Palestinians clashed with Israeli police at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on Friday as thousands of people gathered to pray during the holy month of Ramadan. Doctors said more than 150 Palestinians had been injured 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 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.
Hours after the clashes began, police said they had ended the violence and arrested “hundreds” of suspects. The mosque was reopened and some 60,000 people attended the main Friday noon prayers, according to the Waqf, the Islamic endowment that administers the site.
After the prayer, thousands of Palestinians marched around the esplanade, chanting “with our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Al-Aqsa”, in addition to slogans in support of Hamas, the Islamic militant group who rules Gaza.
Less than a kilometer away, thousands of Christians marched in a procession retracing the traditional journey of Jesus to the cross in honor of Good Friday. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was open to visitors, who are returning in large numbers to the Holy Land for the first time since before the pandemic. The violence was confined to the mosque compound.
Israeli authorities said that before the unrest broke out, they negotiated with Muslim leaders to try to ensure calm. But police say Palestinians stored rocks and other items inside the compound and threw rocks at the Mughrabi Gate, which leads to the Western Wall – an important Jewish holy site – 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, triggering a larger conflagration. large. The Palestinians view any large deployment of police in Al-Aqsa as a provocation.
Palestinians threw rocks and fireworks, and police fired tear gas and stun grenades at the sprawling compound surrounding the mosque. Dozens of Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the mosque as they fought Israeli security forces.
Israeli police then entered the mosque and arrested people inside. Police rarely enter the building, which is seen by Palestinians as an escalation.
The Palestine Red Crescent emergency service said it treated 152 people, many of whom were injured by rubber bullets or stun grenades.
Video footage shows police hitting a Waqf photographer with batons before throwing him to the ground and kicking him. According to the Waqf, the photographer, Rami Khatib, broke his hand. There was no immediate comment from police.
Israel Police said three officers were injured by âmassive stone throwing,â and two were evacuated from the scene for treatment.
Neighboring Jordan, which has custody of the holy site, and the Palestinian Authority issued a joint statement accusing Israel of “a dangerous and reprehensible escalation that threatens to explode the situation”. Egypt also condemned the “Israeli raid”.
Israeli Public 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 said authorities are âworking to calm things down on the Temple Mount and throughout Israel. At the same time, we are prepared 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.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City, 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 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. Israeli troops carried out a wave of arrests and military operations across the occupied West Bank, sparking clashes with Palestinians.
At least 25 Palestinians were killed, according to an Associated Press tally. Many had carried out attacks or were involved in the clashes, but an unarmed woman and a lawyer who appears to have been a bystander were also among those killed.
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Weeks of protests and clashes in and around Al-Aqsa during Ramadan last year helped spark a fourth war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. This year, Israel lifted restrictions and took other steps to try to calm tensions, but military attacks and raids are fueling another cycle of unrest.
Hamas condemned what it called “brutal attacks” on Al-Aqsa loyalists, saying Israel would bear “all the consequences”.
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 large groups of nationalist and religious Jews have regularly visited the site with police escorts.
A radical Jewish group recently 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 “bringing a sacrifice to the Temple Mount today is against the ruling of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.”
Wafaa Shurafa, an Associated Press reporter from Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.