JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli police stormed into the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City early Wednesday, firing stun grenades at Palestinian youths who hurled stones and firecrackers at them in a burst of violence during a sensitive holiday season. Palestinian militants in Gaza responded with rocket fire on southern Israel, prompting repeated Israeli airstrikes.
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.
The mosque sits in a sensitive hilltop compound sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Al-Aqsa is the third-holiest site in Islam and is typically packed with worshippers during Ramadan. 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 have spilled over to violence before, most recently a bloody 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic military group that rules Gaza.
By early morning, the Jerusalem compound had quieted down. A Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, said the Palestinian Authority was in contact with officials in Egypt, Jordan, the United States and the United Nations to de-escalate tensions.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said that 50 people were injured. Separately, the Israeli military said one soldier was shot in the occupied West Bank.
Crowds of Palestinians gathered around a police station in Jerusalem on Wednesday, waiting anxiously for their loved ones — many of them wearing blood-stained shirts and limping on bandaged legs — to trickle out of detention.
People leaving detention said police used batons, chairs, rifles and whatever else they could find to strike Palestinians, including women and children, who responded by setting off firecrackers and hurling stones. Outside the mosque’s gate, police dispersed crowds of young men with stun grenades and rubber bullets.
Israeli police said they were not immediately able to confirm the reports and videos showing officers beating Palestinians.
Amin Risheq, a 19-year-old from east Jerusalem, lifted his bloodied shirt to show his worried mother red blotches all over his back and his bandaged arm, which he said was struck by a tear gas canister. He said that after being beaten and forced to lay on the floor of the mosque with dozens of others, his hands zip-tied behind his back, he was taken to the police station where he said he did not have access to a toilet, medical attention or water for over six hours. “They treated us like animals,” he said.
Since Ramadan began March 22, scores of Muslim worshippers have repeatedly tried 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 performed on Passover in biblical times. Israel bars ritual slaughter 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. Some said they were determined to stay the night to ensure religious Jews didn’t carry out animal sacrifices at the site. After they refused to leave, Israeli police moved into the mosque, descending on Palestinians with batons.
Israeli police said “several law-breaking youths and masked agitators” brought fireworks, sticks and stones into the mosque, chanting insults and locking 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,” police said, adding that one officer was injured in the leg, while some 350 Palestinians were arrested.
Moayad Abu Mayaleh, 23, said he blocked the door of the mosque with hundreds of others to prevent the police from raiding the site. But police broke down the eastern door, he said, unleashing violence that left dozens injured and hundreds arrested. He pointed to his wrists, still chafed and red from plastic handcuffs. “We can’t let them get away with this,” he said, shouting insults at Israeli police outside the station.
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.”
People leaving the police station 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 Wednesday morning.
Palestinian militants responded to the events 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. 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.”
Over a hundred religious Jews filtered through the site ahead of Passover during regular morning visiting hours, as small crowds of 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.
The Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad called for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Israel to gather around the Al-Aqsa Mosque and confront Israeli forces. Palestinians must be prepared “for the inevitable confrontation in the coming days,” said Ziyad al-Nakhala, leader of Islamic Jihad.
In the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian leadership denounced the attack on the worshippers as a violation that “will lead to a large explosion.” The foreign ministries of Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia also condemned what they described as the Israeli raid 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. It said later in the day that Palestinians opened fire at a checkpoint near the northern West Bank city of Jenin, leaving no casualties.
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.
Akram reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed.