JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli security forces entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem before dawn as thousands of Palestinians gathered for prayers during the holy month of Ramadan, triggering clashes that doctors said injured at least 67 Palestinians.
Israel said its forces were in favor of removing stones and stones that had been collected in anticipation of violence. The holy place, which is sacred to Jews and Muslims, has often been the epicenter of Israeli-Palestinian unrest, and tensions had already risen amid a recent wave of violence.
The clashes come at a particularly sensitive time. Ramadan this year coincides with Easter, a major week-long Jewish holiday that begins Friday at sunset, and the Christian holy week that culminates on Easter Sunday. The holidays are expected to bring tens of thousands of believers into the Old City of Jerusalem, home to great sites that are sacred to all three religions.
Videos circulating online showed Palestinians throwing stones and police firing tear gas and stun grenades at the sprawling esplanade around the mosque. Others showed worshipers barricading themselves inside the mosque itself in the middle of what appeared to be clouds of tear gas.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Service said it was evacuating 67 people to hospitals who had been injured by rubber bullets or grenades or beaten with batons. The scholarship said one of the guards at the scene was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet.
Israeli police said three officers were injured after “massive stone-throwing” and two were evacuated from the scene for treatment.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said dozens of masked men carrying Palestinian and Hamas flags marched into the area early Friday, collecting stones.
“Police were forced to enter the grounds to disperse the crowd and remove the rocks and boulders to prevent further violence,” it tweeted.
Police said they waited until the prayers were over and the crowds began to spread. In a statement, it said crowds began throwing stones in the direction of the Western Wall, a nearby Jewish holy site, forcing them to act. They said they did not enter the mosque itself.
The Palestinians consider any major deployment of police at Al-Aqsa a major provocation.
The mosque is the third holiest place in Islam. It is built on a hilltop in the Old City of Jerusalem, which is the holiest site for Jews, referring to it as the Temple Mount because it was the site of the Jewish temples of antiquity. It has been a major hotspot for Israeli-Palestinian violence for decades and was the epicenter of the Palestinian intifada or uprising of 2000-2005.
Tensions have risen in recent weeks following a series of attacks by Palestinians that killed 14 people inside Israel. Israel has carried out a wave of arrests and military operations across the occupied West Bank, prompting clashes with Palestinians.
The Palestinian Ministry of Health said a 17-year-old man died early Friday of wounds sustained in clashes with Israeli forces in Jenin, on the occupied West Bank, the day before.
At least 25 Palestinians have been killed in the latest wave of violence, according to an Associated Press census, many of which carried out attacks or were involved in the clashes, but also an unarmed woman and a lawyer who appear to have been killed by mistake .
Tens of thousands of Palestinians were expected to gather at Al-Aqsa for Friday noon prayers.
Weeks of protests and clashes in Jerusalem during Ramadan last year eventually ignited an 11-day war with the Islamic militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
Israel had lifted the restrictions and taken other steps to try to calm tensions ahead of Ramadan, but the attacks and military raids have led to another cycle of unrest..
Hamas condemned what they said were “brutal attacks” on worshipers at Al-Aqsa by Israeli forces, saying Israel would bear “all the consequences.” It called on all Palestinians to “stand by our people in Jerusalem.”
Earlier this week, Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza had called on Palestinians to camp at the Al-Aqsa Mosque over the weekend. Palestinians have long feared that Israel plans to take over the site or divide it.
Israeli authorities say they are obligated to maintain the status quo, but in recent years, nationalist and religious Jews have visited the site in large numbers with police escorts.
Israel conquered East Jerusalem, home to Al-Aqsa and other major holy sites, in the 1967 war and annexed it in a move that was not internationally recognized. The Palestinians want the eastern part of the city to be the capital of a future independent state, including the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel also conquered during the war almost 55 years ago.