Jerusalem: Israeli police firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets clashed with Palestinian stone-throwers at a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site on Monday, the latest in a series of confrontations that is pushing the contested city to the brink of eruption.
More than a dozen tear gas canisters and stun grenades landed in the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, said an Associated Press photographer at the scene.
At least 215 Palestinians were hurt in the violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, including 153 who were hospitalised, Palestinian medics said. Four of the injured were in serious condition. Police said nine officers were hurt, including one who was hospitalised.
Monday’s confrontation was the latest in the sacred compound after days of mounting tensions between Palestinians and Israeli troops in the Old City of Jerusalem, the emotional ground zero of the conflict. Hundreds of Palestinians and about two dozen police officers have been hurt over the past few days.
The site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, is also considered the holiest site in Judaism. The compound has been the trigger for rounds of Israel-Palestinian violence in the past.
In the early morning hours, protesters barricaded gates to the walled compound with wooden boards and scrap metal. Sometime after 7:00 am, clashes erupted, with those inside the compound throwing stones at police deployed outside. Police entered the compound, firing tear gas and stun grenades.
At some point, about 400 people, both young protesters and older worshippers, were inside the carpeted Al-Aqsa Mosque. Police fired tear gas and stun grenades into the mosque.
Police said protesters hurled stones at officers and onto an adjoining roadway near the Western Wall, where thousands of Israeli Jews had gathered to pray.
Israel has come under growing international criticism for its heavy-handed actions at the site, particularly during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claimed in a tweet that extremist Palestinians planned well in advance to carry out riots at the holy site. He attached photos from the compound showing piles of stones and wooden boards, suggesting this was part of the protesters’ preparations for a confrontation. He said that Israel guarantees freedom of worship, but not the freedom to riot and attack innocent people.
In another violent incident, Palestinian protesters hurled rocks at an Israeli vehicle driving just outside the Old City walls. The driver appeared to lose control and slammed into bystander. Police said in a statement that two passengers were injured.
Earlier, police barred Jews from visiting the site on Monday, which Israelis mark as Jerusalem Day with a flag-waving parade through the Old City and its Muslim Quarter to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray. The marchers celebrate Israel’s capture of east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war.
In that conflict, Israel also captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It later annexed east Jerusalem, home to the city’s most sensitive holy sites, and considers the entire city its capital. The Palestinians seek all three areas for a future state, with east Jerusalem as their capital.
The police decision to ban Jewish visitors temporarily from the holy site came hours before the start of the Jerusalem Day march, which is widely perceived by Palestinians as a provocative display of Jewish hegemony over the contested city.
Police have allowed the parade to take place despite growing concerns that it could further inflame the tension.
This year the march coincides with Ramadan, a time of heightened religious sensitivities, and follows weeks of clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians in Jerusalem.
Violence has occurred almost nightly throughout Ramadan, beginning when Israel blocked off a popular spot where Muslims traditionally gather each night at the end of their daylong fast. Israel later removed the restrictions, but clashes quickly resumed amid tensions over the eviction plan in Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighbourhood where settlers have waged a lengthy legal battle to take over properties.
Israel’s Supreme Court postponed a key ruling Monday that could have led to the evictions of dozens of Palestinians from their homes, citing the circumstances .
The Israeli crackdown and planned evictions have drawn harsh condemnations from Israel’s Arab allies and expressions of concern from the US, European Union and United Nations.
The UN Security Council scheduled closed consultations Monday on the soaring tensions in Jerusalem. Diplomats said the meeting was requested by Tunisia, the Arab representative on the council.
Late Sunday, the US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke to his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, and urged calm.
A White House statement said that Sullivan called on Israel to to pursue appropriate measures to ensure calm and expressed the US’ serious concerns about the ongoing violence and planned evictions.
The tensions in Jerusalem have threatened to reverberate throughout the region.
Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have fired several barrages of rockets into Israel, and protesters allied with the ruling Hamas militant group have launched dozens of incendiary balloons into Israel, setting off fires across the southern part of the country. (AP)