Israeli police entered Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque in force on Wednesday to try to clear groups it said were barricaded inside, leading to clashes with worshippers and triggering an exchange of crossborder fire with Gaza.
The incident, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and on the eve of the Jewish Passover, came amid fears that tensions built up during a year of escalating violence could be unleashed at the Al-Aqsa mosque, a flashpoint site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Palestinian militants fired at least nine rockets from Gaza into Israel overnight, prompting air strikes from Israel which hit what it said were weapon production sites for the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the blockaded coastal enclave.
Hamas did not claim responsibility for the rocket attacks but said that those who carried them out were responding to the Israeli raid on Al-Aqsa, where clashes in 2021 set off a 10-day war with Gaza.
As ground-shaking explosions from the airstrikes rocked Gaza, witnesses said Israeli tanks also shelled Hamas positions. “We are not interested in an escalation, but we are ready for any scenario,” IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari said.
As day broke, with international efforts underway to de-escalate the situation, tensions appeared to have settled in the mosque compound, where large crowds of worshippers spent the night, as is common during Ramadan.
The Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, is Islam’s third holiest site and tens of thousands come to pray there during Ramadan. Jews revere the same site as Temple Mount, a vestige of the first two biblical Jewish temples.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said 12 Palestinians had sustained wounds during the raid, including from rubber-tipped bullets and beatings, in clashes with police. It added that Israeli forces had prevented its medics from reaching the area.
“In the yard to the eastern part of the compound, the police fired tear gas and stun grenades, it was a scene that I can’t describe,” said Fahmi Abbas, a worshipper who was at the mosque when the raid occurred. “Then they stormed in and started beating everyone. They detained people and put the young men face down on the ground while they continued beating them.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was working to calm the situation, which he said had been caused by “extremists” who barricaded themselves inside the mosque buildings with weapons, stones and fireworks.
“Israel is committed to maintaining freedom of worship , free access to all religions and the status quo on the Temple Mount and will not allow violent extremists to change that,” he said in a statement.
Videos circulating on social media, which Reuters could not independently verify, showed fireworks going off and police beating people inside one of the mosque buildings. Police video showed police entering the building while fire crackers exploded in the darkness.
“I was sitting on a chair reciting (Qur’an),” an elderly woman told Reuters outside the mosque, struggling to catch her breath. “They hurled stun grenades, one of them hit my chest,” she said as she began to cry.
Israeli police said in a statement that security units were forced to enter the compound after what it called masked agitators locked themselves inside the mosque.
“Following many continuous attempts to remove the individuals from the mosque using dialogue failed, police were forced to enter the compound in order to remove the individuals,” the police said.
“Throughout the presence of police forces in the compound, stones were thrown and multiple firecrackers were set off inside the mosque by many law-breaking individuals and rioters,” the statement said, adding that two police officers were wounded.
Police said more than 350 people who had barricaded themselves inside were arrested and removed from the compound.
Thousands of worshippers had been spending the night in the mosque compound amid fears of possible clashes with Jewish visitors to the site for Passover.
Under the longstanding “status quo” arrangement governing the area, which Israel says it maintains, non-Muslims can visit but only Muslims are allowed to worship in the mosque compound. Jewish visitors have increasingly prayed more or less openly at the site in defiance of the rules.
The Waqf, the Jordanian-appointed Islamic organisation that manages the complex, considered the third holiest site in the Muslim world, described the police actions as a “flagrant assault on the identity and the function of the mosque as a place of worship for Muslims alone”.
“Leaders on all sides must act responsibly and refrain from steps that could escalate tensions,” the U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Tor Wennesland said.
The incident drew a sharp reaction from Arab countries and the Arab League, which criticised Israel’s “extremist approach”, said it would hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday.
Jordan and Egypt, both involved in recent U.S.-backed efforts to de-escalate tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, issued separate statements strongly condemning the incident, while Saudi Arabia, with whom Israel hopes to normalise ties, said Israel’s “storming” of Al-Aqsa undermined peace efforts.
“Israel’s aggression against the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound is an egregious assault on the basic right of Palestinians to worship freely in their holy site,” the Palestinian foreign ministry said in a statement.
A foreign diplomat said United Nations representatives were involved in international efforts with all parties to de-escalate the situation.
Hazem Qassem, a spokesperson for Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, said the overnight rocket fire was a response to the police raid in the Al-Aqsa mosque and showed Israel would not be able to separate Gaza from the West Bank.
“The Zionist bombardment on Gaza was a failed attempt to prevent Gaza from continuing its support to our people in Jerusalem and the West Bank by all means,” Qassem said.
However neither Hamas, nor the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad movement, claimed responsibility for the attacks, which were instead claimed by the smaller Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Resistance Committees. The Israeli military says it holds Hamas responsible for all attacks from Gaza.
With Israel still reeling from weeks of domestic tension over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bitterly contested plans to rein in the powers of the Supreme Court, the incident added to an already fevered political atmosphere.
Hardline Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has responsibility for the police but not the armed forces, called for a harsh response from Israel and said he had asked to convene a meeting of the security cabinet.
“Hamas rockets require more than blasting dunes and empty sites. It’s time to rip heads off in Gaza. We must not deviate from an equation that necessitates a serious response for each and every rocket,” he said in a tweet.
In the West Bank town of Beit Ummar, protestors burned tyres and threw rocks and explosive devices at Israeli soldiers, one of whom was shot and wounded. In another incident, an attacker opened fire on an army checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem without causing any casualties.
Over the past year, Israeli forces have made thousands of arrests in the West Bank and killed more than 250 Palestinians, while more than 40 Israelis and three Ukrainians have died in Palestinian attacks.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City where the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is located, in a 1967 war and later annexed it in a move not recognised internationally. It regards Jerusalem as its eternal and indivisible capital.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem for the capital of an independent state they seek in the West Bank and Gaza.