Jerusalem: Palestinians clashed with Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem before dawn on Friday as thousands gathered for prayers during the holy month of Ramadan. Medics said that 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 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 announced that they had put an end to the violence and arrested hundreds of suspects. They said the mosque was re-opened and that Friday’s midday prayers would take place as usual. Tens of thousands of people were expected.
Israeli authorities said they had earlier held negotiations with Muslim leaders to ensure calm and allow the prayers to take place, but that Palestinian youths hurled stones at police, 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.
Videos circulating online showed Palestinians throwing rocks and fireworks and police firing tear gas and stun grenades on the sprawling esplanade surrounding the mosque. Others showed worshippers barricading themselves inside the mosque.
Later in the morning, Israeli police entered the mosque and were arresting people. 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.
The Israeli police said three officers were wounded from massive stone-throwing, with two evacuated from the scene for treatment.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said that dozens of masked men carrying Palestinian and Hamas flags had marched to the compound before dawn on Friday and gathered stones and other objects in anticipation of unrest.
Police were forced to enter the grounds to disperse the crowd and remove the stones and rocks, in order to prevent further violence, it tweeted.
The police said they waited until prayers were over and the crowds started to disperse. In a statement, it said crowds started hurling rocks in the direction of the Western Wall, a nearby Jewish holy site, forcing them to act.
Palestinians view any large deployment of police at Al-Aqsa as a major provocation.
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 that attacked them with stones and metal bars. He said Israel was committed to freedom of worship for Jews and Muslims alike.