Violence in Jerusalem at Al-Aqsa raises fear of more fighting

AP , Wednesday 5 Apr 2023

Israeli police stormed into the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City early Wednesday, firing stun grenades at Palestinian youths who hurled firecrackers at them in a burst of violence during a sensitive holiday season. Palestinians in Gaza responded with rocket fire on southern Israel, prompting repeated Israeli airstrikes.

Israeli security forces remove Palestinian Muslim worshippers sitting on the grounds of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, early on April 5, 2023 during Islam s holy month of Ramadan.AFP


The fighting, coming as Muslims mark the holiday month of Ramadan and Jews prepare to begin the Passover festival on Wednesday evening, raised fears of a wider conflagration. Similar clashes two years ago erupted into a bloody 11-day war between Israel and the ruling Hamas militant group in Gaza. The official Palestinian news agency Wafa said that dozens of worshippers who were spending the night praying were injured in the police raid. The Israeli military said one soldier was shot in a separate incident in the occupied West Bank.

The mosque sits on a sensitive hilltop compound holy to both Jews and Muslims. Al-Aqsa is the third-holiest site in Islam and is typically packed with worshippers during Ramadan. Overnight, the scene of festive holiday-makers picnicking and praying at the holy site transformed into one of violence, as Israeli police stormed into the mosque, firing tear gas and stun grenades that shattered stained-glass windows and fiercely beating worshippers with clubs and rifle butts, witnesses said.

The spot, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, is also the holiest site in Judaism, revered as the location of the biblical Jewish temples. The conflicting claims fuel constant tensions that have spilled over to violence numerous times in the past.

Since Ramadan began March 22, scores of Muslim worshippers have been trying to stay overnight in the mosque, a practice that is typically permitted only during the last 10 days of the monthlong holiday. Israeli police have entered nightly to evict the worshippers, stirring tensions with young Palestinians who demand to pray at the holy site until dawn.

Tensions over control of the holy site have been heightened by calls from Jewish ultranationalists to carry out a ritual slaughter of a goat in the compound, imitating the ancient ritual sacrifice executed on Passover in biblical times. Israel bars ritual slaughters on the site, but calls by Jewish extremists to revive the practice, including offers of cash rewards to anyone who even attempts to bring an animal into the compound, have amplified fears among Muslims that Israel is plotting to take over the site. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is committed to preserving the status quo at the compound.

After some 80,000 worshippers attended evening prayers at the mosque on Tuesday, hundreds of Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the mosque overnight to pray. Worshippers said that after they refused to leave, Israeli police moved into the mosque, descending on Palestinians with batons.

Israeli police said they moved in after “several law-breaking youths and masked agitators” brought fireworks, sticks and stones and barricaded themselves into the mosque. Police said the youths chanted violent slogans and locked the front doors.

“After many and prolonged attempts to get them out by talking to no avail, police forces were forced to enter the compound in order to get them out,” police said.

Video released by police showed the repeated explosions of fireworks inside the mosque. One amateur video taken by Palestinians showed police scuffling with people and beating them — at one point breaking a chair over someone's head — as a woman’s voice could be heard shouting, “Oh God. Oh God.”

Outside the gate, police dispersed groups of youths with stun grenades and rubber bullets.

Police said one officer was injured in the leg, while some 350 people were arrested. They released images of fireworks and at least one large stone that appeared to have been hurled.

The Jordan-controlled Islamic trust that administers the site, known as the Waqf, condemned the Israeli actions at the holy site as a “flagrant violation of the identity and function of the mosque as a place of worship for Muslims.”

Worshippers trickling out of the police station on Wednesday said they were released on the condition of not entering the mosque or the Old City for one week. Palestinians under the age of 45 were not permitted to enter the compound for dawn prayers.

Talab Abu Eisha, 49, said more than 400 men, women and children were praying at Al-Aqsa when the police encircled the mosque.

“The youths were afraid and started closing the doors,” he said, adding that police forces “stormed the eastern corner, beating and arresting men there.”

”It was an unprecedented scene of violence in terms of police brutality,” he said, denying police claims that young men were hiding fireworks and rocks.

Palestinian militants responded by firing a barrage of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel, setting off air raid sirens in the region as residents were preparing for the beginning of the weeklong Passover holiday.

The Israeli military said a total of five rockets were fired, and all were intercepted. Hours later, Israel responded with airstrikes that the army said hit Hamas weapons storage and manufacturing sites.

“We don’t want this to escalate.,” said Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an army spokesman. But he said that if the rocket fire persisted, “we will respond very aggressively.”

By early morning, the Jerusalem compound had quieted down, and a few dozen religious Jews were seen filtering through the site ahead of Passover during regular morning visiting hours, as small crowds Muslims gathered around them shouting, “God is greater!”

Jews are permitted to visit the compound, but not pray there, under longstanding agreements. But such visits, which have grown in numbers in recent years, have added to Palestinian suspicions, particularly because some Jews are often seen quietly praying.

Mainstream Orthodox Jews, including Israel’s chief rabbi, vehemently oppose Jewish visits to the site. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the head rabbi of the adjacent Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, said Tuesday that he would prevent any animals bring brought to the entrance to the site.

Tensions have been steadily rising since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government took office late last year. The government is dominated by religious and ultranationalist hard-liners, and the overlap of the Jewish and Muslim holidays – when tens of thousands of worshippers make their way to contested Jerusalem — has raised fears of violence.

The police force is overseen by Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist with a history of violent rhetoric and actions against Palestinians.

Ben-Gvir wrote on Twitter Wednesday morning that the government “needs to respond mightily to rocket fire from Gaza, rocket fire by Hamas demands a response beyond blowing up dunes and unmanned positions.”

In Gaza, Hamas called for large protests and people started gathering in the streets, with calls to head for the heavily guarded Gaza-Israel frontier for more violent demonstrations.

The Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad also called for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Israel to gather around Al-Aqsa Mosque and confront Israeli forces.

Ziyad al-Nakhala, leader of Islamic Jihad, said the situation at Al-Aqsa was a “serious threat.” He said that Palestinians must be prepared “for the inevitable confrontation in the coming days.”

In the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian leadership condemned the attack on the worshippers. The spokesman of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, warned Israel that such a move “exceeds all red lines and will lead to a large explosion.”

The government of Jordan condemned the Israeli raid “in the strongest terms.” The Foreign Ministry warned “of the consequences of this dangerous escalation and held Israel responsible for the safety of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

The foreign ministries of Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia also condemned what they described as an Israeli intrusion into Al-Aqsa.

As violence was unfolding in Jerusalem, the Israeli military reported fighting in a Palestinian town in the occupied West Bank. It said residents of Beit Umar, near the volatile city of Hebron, burned tires, hurled rocks and explosives at soldiers. It said one soldier was shot by armed suspects, who managed to flee.

Earlier on Tuesday, a Palestinian suspect stabbed two Israeli soldiers near an army base south of Tel Aviv, the military said, in the latest incident in a yearlong spate of violence that shows no sign of abating.

Israeli-Palestinian violence has surged over the last year, as the Israeli military has carried out near-nightly raids on Palestinian cities, towns and villages and as Palestinians have staged numerous attacks against Israelis.

At least 88 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire this year, according to an Associated Press tally. Palestinian attacks against Israelis have killed 15 people in the same period. Israel says most of the Palestinians killed were militants. But stone-throwing youths and bystanders uninvolved in violence were also among the dead. All but one of the Israeli dead were civilians.

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