JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinians and Israeli police clashed at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on Friday as thousands gathered for prayers during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Medics said more than 150 Palestinians were wounded — Palestinians threw rocks and Israeli police fired stun grenades in what was 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. The mosque was re-opened, and some 60,000 people attended the main Friday prayers midday, according to the Waqf, the Islamic endowment that administers the site.
After prayers, thousands of Palestinians marched around the esplanade, chanting “with our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Al-Aqsa,” in addition to slogans in support of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza.
Less than a kilometer (mile) away, thousands of Christians marched in a procession retracing the traditional journey of Jesus to the cross in honor of Good Friday. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was open to visitors, who are returning to the Holy Land in large numbers for the first time since before the pandemic. The violence was confined to the mosque compound.
Israeli authorities said that before the unrest broke out they had negotiated with Muslim leaders to try to ensure calm. But the police say Palestinians stockpiled rocks and other objects inside the compound and 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 view any large deployment of police at Al-Aqsa as a provocation.
Palestinians threw rocks and fireworks, and police fired tear gas and stun grenades on the sprawling esplanade surrounding the mosque. Dozens of Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the mosque as they fought Israeli security forces.
Israeli police later entered the mosque and arrested people inside. The police rarely enter the building, which is seen by Palestinians as an escalation.
The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service said it treated 152 people, many of them wounded by rubber-coated bullets or stun grenades.
Video footage showed police beating a photographer for the Waqf with batons before knocking him to ground and kicking him. The Waqf said the photographer, Rami Khatib, suffered a broken hand. There was no immediate comment from police.
The Israeli police said three officers were wounded from “massive stone-throwing,” with two evacuated from the scene for treatment.
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.” Egypt also condemned the “Israeli raid.”
Israel's public 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 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, including the Old City, 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 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. Israeli troops have carried out a wave of arrests and military operations across the occupied West Bank, setting off clashes with Palestinians.
At least 25 Palestinians have been killed, according to an Associated Press count. Many had carried out attacks or were involved in the clashes, but an unarmed woman and a lawyer who appears to have been a bystander were also among those killed.
Weeks of protests and clashes in and around Al-Aqsa during Ramadan last year helped ignite a fourth Gaza war between Israel and Hamas. This year, Israel has lifted restrictions and taken other steps to try and calm tensions, but the attacks and the military raids are fueling 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. He also noted that “bringing a sacrifice to the Temple Mount today is in opposition to the decision of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.”
Associated Press reporter Wafaa Shurafa in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.
Joseph Krauss, The Associated Press