JERUSALEM – Palestinians clashed with Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on Friday as thousands gathered for prayers during the holy month of Ramadan. Doctors said more than 150 Palestinians were injured in the most serious violence at the site in nearly a year.
The holy site, 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. Clashes at the site last year helped trigger an 11-day war with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
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.
A few hours after the clashes began, police said they had put an end to the violence and arrested “hundreds” of suspects. The mosque was reopened and about 60,000 people attended the main Friday prayers dinner, according to the Islamic endowment that manages the place.
After prayers, thousands of Palestinians marched around the esplanade, singing “with our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Al-Aqsa,” in addition to slogans in support of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza. Some carried Palestinian and Hamas flags.
Israeli authorities said that before the violence broke out, they had held talks with Muslim leaders to ensure calm. But police say Palestinians stored stones and other objects inside the area and threw stones at the Mughrabi Gate, which leads to the Western Wall – a large Jewish shrine – and triggered the violence.
Palestinian witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said a small group of Palestinians threw stones at police, who then entered the area, triggering a major fire. Palestinians consider any major deployment of police at Al-Aqsa a provocation.
Palestinians threw stones and fireworks, and police fired tear gas and stun grenades at the sprawling esplanade around the mosque. A large group of Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the mosque as they battled Israeli security forces.
Israeli police later entered the mosque and arrested people inside. Israeli security forces rarely enter the building, and when they do, it is seen by the Palestinians as a major escalation.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Service said it was treating 152 people, many of them wounded 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.
Neighboring Jordan, which has custody of the holy site, and the Palestinian Authority issued a joint statement accusing Israel of “a dangerous and damning escalation that threatens to explode the situation.”
Speaking at a holiday rally with security officials, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said authorities were “working to calm things down on Temple Mount and throughout Israel. At the same time, we are prepared for any scenario.”
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 the West Bank city of Jenin 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 .
Weeks of protests and clashes in and around Al-Aqsa during Ramadan last year eventually ignited a fourth Gaza war between Israel and Hamas.
This year, Israel has lifted restrictions and taken other steps to try to quell tensions ahead of Ramadan, but the attacks and military raids have led to another cycle of unrest.