Violence erupted at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City overnight after Israeli police stormed the sensitive compound, fueling fears that tension already high in the heart of the Middle East could flare up again. in a conflict during a delicate Christmas season.
Al-Aqsa is one of the holiest sites in Islam and shares a hilltop with the Temple Mount, the holiest site for Jews. Palestinians consider the site a national symbol, and the assault on the Al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli security forces was a major catalyst for 11 days of violent clashes in 2021.
In response to the raid, a series of rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip, led by the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Israel said then that it carried out airstrikes against Hamas weapons storage and manufacturing sites.
Since the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began on March 22, some Palestinian worshipers have been trying to spend the night inside Al-Aqsa, which is usually only allowed during the last 10 days of the holiday period, The Associated Press reported. Israeli police have entered the venue every day to evict worshippers, the AP said.
After tens of thousands of people attended prayers in Al-Aqsa on Tuesday night, Israeli officials said they were forced into the compound when hundreds of Palestinian “rioters.” they barricaded themselves inside the mosque armed with fireworks and stones. Videos posted online appeared to show police storming the compound, beating Palestinians with batons and rifle butts and holding back dozens of worshipers and Palestinians pointing fireworks at police. Police said rocks had been thrown at the officers.
“The youths were afraid and started to close the doors,” Talab Abu Eisha, who was there at the time of the raid, told the AP. “It was an unprecedented scene of violence in terms of police brutality.”
Israeli police said they entered the mosque after “several young lawbreakers and masked rioters” barricaded themselves inside a prayer room at the mosque. The police dispersed the Palestinians outside the mosque with rubber bullets and stun grenades.
“After many and prolonged attempts to get them out talking to no avail, the police forces were forced to enter the compound to get them out,” Israeli police said.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said at least 50 Palestinians were injured in the raid. Police said 350 people were arrested and one officer was injured in the leg.
The violence at the mosque prompted calls for mass protests by Hamas militants in Gaza, as well as condemnation from other Muslim-majority Arab states, including Jordan, Egypt, Qatar and Iran. The Arab League condemned the raid and said it would hold an emergency meeting later on Wednesday.
Tensions have soared in the region since the new far-right ultranationalist governing coalition took power late last year under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israel police are now overseen by one of the most radical members of that government, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was previously convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization.
Al-Aqsa is run by an Islamic endowment called the Waqf as part of a longstanding agreement under which Muslims can pray at the site, but Jews and Christians cannot. The Waqf called the raid a “flagrant violation of the identity and function of the mosque as a place of worship for Muslims.”
Netanyahu has said he is committed to maintaining the status quo on the sensitive site.