Medics say more than 150 Palestinians have been injured in clashes that erupted when Israeli riot police entered Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound, in the most significant violence at the holy site since similar scenes sparked a war last year.
Most of the Palestinian injuries on Friday were incurred by rubber bullets, stun grenades and beatings with police batons, the Palestine Red Crescent said.
Israel said its forces entered before dawn prayers on Friday to remove rocks and stones that it said had been collected in anticipation of violence. The holy site, which is sacred to Jews and Muslims, has often been the scene of Israeli-Palestinian unrest, and tensions were already heightened amid a recent surge in bloodshed. Repeated clashes at the site last year led to an 11-day war with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
The violence comes at a particularly sensitive time. Ramadan this year coincides with Passover, a major week-long Jewish holiday beginning on Friday at sundown, and Christian Holy Week, which culminates on Easter Sunday. The holidays are expected to bring tens of thousands of people into Jerusalem’s Old City, home to major sites sacred to all three religions.
Videos circulating online showed Palestinians hurling rocks and fireworks, and police firing teargas and stun grenades on the sprawling esplanade surrounding the mosque. Others showed worshippers barricading themselves inside the mosque itself amid what appeared to be clouds of teargas.
The Palestine Red Crescent said one of the Palestinian guards at the site was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet. Israeli police said three officers were wounded from “massive stone-throwing”, with two evacuated from the scene for treatment.
The Israeli foreign ministry said dozens of masked men carrying Palestinian and Hamas flags marched to the compound early on Friday and gathered stones. “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.
Police said they waited until prayers were over and the crowds started to disperse. In a statement, they said crowds started hurling rocks in the direction of the Western Wall, a 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 officers were forced to confront “violent elements” that confronted them with stones and metal bars.
He said Israel was committed to freedom of worship for Jews and Muslims alike.
The mosque is the third-holiest site in Islam. It is built on a hilltop in Jerusalem’s Old City that is the most sacred site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount because it was the site of the Jewish temples in antiquity. It has been a major flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian violence for decades and was the centre of the 2000-05 Palestinian intifada.
Tensions have risen in recent weeks after a series of attacks by Palestinians that killed 14 people inside Israel. In response, Israel has carried out a wave of arrests and military operations across the occupied West Bank, setting off clashes.
At least 25 Palestinians have been killed, many of whom had carried out attacks or were involved in the clashes, but also others, including an unarmed woman and a lawyer.
The Palestinian health ministry said a 17-year-old died early on Friday from wounds suffered during clashes with Israeli forces in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank, the day before.
On Friday, the Hamas Islamic militant group condemned what it said were “brutal attacks” on worshippers at al-Aqsa by Israeli forces, saying Israel would bear “all the consequences”. It called on all Palestinians to “stand by our people in Jerusalem”.
The UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Tor Wennesland, said the “provocations on the Holy Esplanade must stop now”.
He called on “political, religious and community leaders on all sides to help calm the situation, avoid spreading inflammatory rhetoric and speak up against those seeking to escalate the situation”, adding: “Allowing tensions to spiral further only risks another escalation.”
Earlier this week, Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza had called on Palestinians to camp out at the al-Aqsa mosque over the weekend. Palestinians have long feared that Israel plans to take over the site or partition it.
Authorities in Israel 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.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, home to al-Aqsa and other major holy sites, in the 1967 war and annexed it in a move not recognised internationally. Palestinians want the eastern part of the city to be the capital of a future independent state including the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel also captured during the war nearly 55 years ago.
By midday on Friday, the clashes had ended and Israeli police reopened the entrance. Tens of thousands of Muslims arrived at the compound and prayed without further reports of incidents.
There was a sense on both sides that Friday’s flare-up would not ignite a broader escalation but that this could still change in the days ahead. “We need to wait and see,” said Mahmoud Muna, whose family owns a bookshop near the Old City walls. “Israel’s reopening of the mosque was intentional to avoid escalation but they will have to see that there are no Passover incursions that would escalate things to a new line.”
Daniel Seidemann, the director of the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem, which focuses on conflict resolution, said the situation was contained for now. Hani Masri, the director of the Ramallah-based Masarat thinktank, said: “Until now it’s been a limited escalation but it could become a complete escalation if there are [more] Palestinian martyrs or another attack in Israel.”