More than 150 people were injured Friday in clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, the first flash-point clash at the holy site since the start of Ramadan.
Israeli police said dozens of masked men entered Al-Aqsa and set off fireworks before crowds threw rocks at the Western Wall, which is considered the holiest place for Jews to pray.
Witnesses said Palestinians threw rocks at Israeli troops, who fired rubber-coated bullets and stun grenades.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said 153 people had been hospitalized and “dozens” of others were being treated at the scene. Israeli police said at least three officers were injured.
About 400 people were arrested, the Palestinian Prisoner’s Club said.
The clashes come after three weeks of deadly violence in Israel and the occupied West Bank, and because the Jewish Passover and Christian Easter coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Al-Aqsa is Islam’s third holiest site. Jews call it the Temple Mount, referring to two temples that are said to have stood there in ancient times.
Last year, during the Muslim month of fasting, clashes that erupted in Jerusalem, including between Israeli troops and Palestinians visiting Al-Aqsa, led to 11 days of devastating conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the Palestinian enclave of Gaza.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Friday’s “riots” were “unacceptable”.
“The convergence of Passover, Ramadan and Easter is symbolic of what we have in common. We must not let anyone turn these holy days into a platform for hatred, incitement and violence,” he said.
UN Peace Envoy for the Middle East, Tor Wennesland, urged authorities on both sides to immediately de-escalate the situation and avoid further provocations by radical actors.
The US, the European Union and the Arab League have also expressed their concerns.
Washington said Friday it was “deeply concerned” about events in Jerusalem.
“We call on all parties to exercise restraint (and) avoid provocative actions and rhetoric,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
– ‘Red line’ –
Police said crowds had thrown stones “in the direction of the Western Wall… and as violence increased, police were forced to enter the grounds around the mosque”, adding that officers are not entering the mosque.
But Al-Aqsa Mosque director Omar al-Kiswani told AFP that an “attack had taken place in Al-Aqsa Mosque”.
“More than 80 young people in the holy mosque have been displaced,” he said, adding: “The Al-Aqsa mosque is a red line”.
Before Ramadan, Israel and Jordan stepped up talks to prevent a repeat of last year’s violence.
Jordan is the custodian of the mosque complex, while Israel controls the entrance.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said there was “no place for the invaders and occupiers in our holy Jerusalem”.
Analysts say Hamas wants to keep the conflict in the West Bank and Jerusalem alive, but avoid escalation in the Gaza Strip after last year’s war, and at the risk of Israeli work permits for thousands of Gazans.
“Hamas does not want another confrontation,” said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.
An Israeli security source said the Islamic Jihad militant group — which controls neither the West Bank nor Gaza — would be more inclined to escalate with Israel.
The group warned that “the confrontation will draw ever closer” for the Israeli armed forces if “they do not stop the aggression against our people”.
Together with Hamas, Islamic Jihad mobilized thousands of people in Gaza on Friday in solidarity with Palestinians in Al-Aqsa, AFP correspondents reported.
– Spiraling Violence –
Israel has poured additional troops into the West Bank and reinforced its wall and fence after four deadly attacks in the Jewish state in the past three weeks.
The attacks since March 22 have killed a total of 14 people, including a shooting in Bnei Brak, an Orthodox Jewish city in greater Tel Aviv.
According to an AFP count, 22 Palestinians were killed in the same period, including attackers targeting Israelis.
On Thursday, Israel announced it would block crossings from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to Israel from Friday afternoon through Saturday, the first two nights of Passover week, possibly keeping the crossings closed for the rest of the holiday.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who lost his parliamentary majority last week, has given Israeli forces a free hand to “defeat terror” in the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War.
Some of the attacks in Israel were carried out by Arab citizens of Israel associated with or inspired by the Islamic State group, others by Palestinians, cheered by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Three Palestinians were killed on Thursday when Israeli forces launched new attacks in the Jenin district of the West Bank, a week after a deadly gun attack on an entertainment area in Tel Aviv. A fourth died Friday from his injuries.
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