More than 150 people were wounded Friday in clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli police at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the first face-off in the area since the start of Ramadan.
Israeli police said “dozens of masked men” marched into Al-Aqsa setting off fireworks before crowds hurled stones towards the Western Wall — considered the holiest site where Jews can pray.
Witnesses said Palestinians threw stones at Israeli forces, who fired rubber-coated bullets and sound grenades.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said 153 people were hospitalised and “dozens of other injuries” were treated at the scene. Israeli police said at least three officers were hurt.
Around 400 people were arrested, said the Palestinian Prisoner’s Club, a group which supports inmates.
The clashes come after three tense weeks of deadly violence in Israel and the occupied West Bank, and as the Jewish festival of Passover and Christian Easter overlap with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Al-Aqsa is Islam’s third-holiest site. Jews refer to it as the Temple Mount, referencing two temples said to have stood there in antiquity.
Last year during Muslim fasting month, clashes that flared in Jerusalem, including between Israeli forces and Palestinians visiting Al-Aqsa, led to 11 days of devastating conflict between Israel and Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Friday’s “riots” were “unacceptable”.
“The convergence of Passover, Ramadan, and Easter is symbolic of what we have in common. We must not let anyone turn these holy days into a platform for hate, incitement, and violence,” he said.
UN Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland urged “the authorities on both sides to immediately de-escalate the situation and prevent any further provocations by radical actors”.
Police said crowds had hurled rocks “in the direction of the Western Wall… and as the violence surged, police were forced to enter the grounds surrounding the Mosque,” adding officers “did not enter the mosque.”
But Al-Aqsa mosque director Omar al-Kiswani told AFP that an “assault was made inside the Al-Aqsa mosque”.
“More than 80 young people inside the holy mosque were displaced,” he said, adding: “Al-Aqsa mosque is a red line”.
Before Ramadan, Israel and Jordan stepped up talks in an effort to avoid a repeat of last year’s violence.
Jordan serves as custodian of the mosque compound, while Israel controls access.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said there was “no place for the invaders and occupiers in our holy Jerusalem”.
Analysts say the group wants to keep the conflict alive in the West Bank and in Jerusalem but avoid escalation in the Gaza Strip after last year’s war, and with thousands of Gazans’ Israeli work permits at risk.
“Hamas does not want a new confrontation,” said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, professor of political science at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University.
An Israeli security source said the Islamic Jihad militant group — which controls neither the West Bank nor Gaza — would be more inclined towards an escalation with Israel.
Islamic Jihad warned Friday that “the confrontation will be closer and harder” for Israeli forces if “they do not stop the aggression against our people”.
Israel has poured additional forces into the West Bank and is reinforcing its wall and fence barrier with the West Bank after four deadly attacks in the Jewish state that have mostly killed civilians in the past three weeks.
A total of 14 people have been killed in the attacks since March 22, including a shooting spree in Bnei Brak, an Orthodox Jewish city in greater Tel Aviv.
Twenty-two Palestinians have been killed in that time, including assailants who targeted Israelis, according to an AFP tally.
On Thursday Israel announced it would block crossings from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel from Friday afternoon through Saturday, the first two nights of the week-long Passover festival, and potentially keep the crossings closed for the rest of the holiday.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who lost his parliamentary majority last week, has given Israeli forces a free hand to “defeat terror” in the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War.
Some of the attacks in Israel were carried out by Arab citizens of Israel linked to or inspired by the Islamic State group, others by Palestinians, and cheered by militant groups including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Three Palestinians died Thursday as Israeli forces launched fresh raids into the West Bank flashpoint district of Jenin, a week after the Bnei Brak attack. A fourth died of his wounds on Friday.