JERUSALEM — 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. Gaza militants responded with rocket fire on southern Israel, prompting an Israeli airstrike.
The fighting, coming as Muslims mark the holiday month of Ramadan and Jews prepare to begin the Passover festival on Wednesday evening, drew Palestinian condemnations and raised fears of a wider conflagration. Similar clashes two years ago erupted into an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas. 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. The spot, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, is also the holiest site in Judaism, who revere it 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.
The official Palestinian news agency Wafa said that dozens of worshippers who were spending the night praying were injured in the police raid.
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 with clubs and rifle butts 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 dozens of people were arrested.
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 and intention to hurt the youths,” he said, denying police claims that young men were hiding fireworks and rocks. He added that the police prevented all men under 50 years old from passing through the Old City’s gates leading to the compound for the dawn prayers Wednesday morning.
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 an airstrike in Gaza. There were no immediate details on the target.
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 against the Palestinians.
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 go and gather around Al-Aqsa Mosque and confront Israeli forces.
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, which serves as the custodian of the mosque, 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.”
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 Israelis near an army base south of Tel Aviv, police said, in the latest incident in a yearlong spate of violence that shows no sign of abating.
The Magen David Adom paramedic service said first responders treated two men for serious and light stab wounds in the incident on a highway near the Tzrifin military base. The men were taken to a nearby hospital for treatment.
Israeli media identified the two victims as soldiers.
Police said that civilians at the scene apprehended the suspected attacker, who was taken into police custody for questioning.
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.