JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinians clashed with Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem on Friday as thousands gathered for prayers during the holy month of 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 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 said 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 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 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.
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.
Palestinians view any large deployment of police at Al-Aqsa as a major provocation.
Neighboring 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 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 epicenter of the 2000-2005 Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, home to Al-Aqsa and other major holy sites, in the 1967 war and annexed it in a move not recognized 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.
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 Jerusalem during Ramadan last year eventually ignited an 11-day war with Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules the Gaza Strip. 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.
Hamas condemned what it said were “brutal attacks” on worshippers at Al-Aqsa, saying Israel would bear “all the consequences.”
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.
Israeli authorities say they are committed to maintaining 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 in order to sacrifice them for Passover, offering cash rewards for those who succeeded or even tried. Israeli police work to prevent such activities, but the call was widely circulated by Palestinians on social media, along with calls for Muslims to prevent any sacrifices from taking place.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, issued a statement calling on Muslim leaders to act to stop the violence. It also noted that “bringing a sacrifice to the Temple Mount today is in opposition to the decision of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.”