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Scores hurt as Palestinians clash with Israeli police at major Jerusalem holy site

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces
Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday.
(Mahmoud Illean / Associated Press)
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Palestinians and Israeli police clashed at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on Friday as thousands gathered for prayers during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Palestinians threw rocks and Israeli police fired stun grenades in what was the most serious violence at the site in nearly a year. Medics said more than 150 Palestinians were wounded.

The site, which is sacred to both Jews and Muslims, has often been the epicenter of Israeli-Palestinian unrest, and tensions were already heightened amid a recent wave of violence. Clashes at the site last year helped spark an 11-day war between Israeli forces and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

The clashes come at a particularly sensitive time. Ramadan this year coincides with Passover, a major weeklong Jewish holiday beginning Friday at sundown, and Christian Holy Week, which culminates on Easter Sunday. The holidays are expected to bring tens of thousands of faithful into Jerusalem’s Old City, home to major sites sacred to all three religions.

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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 some 60,000 people attended the main Friday prayers at midday, according to the Waqf, the Islamic endowment that administers the site.

After prayers, thousands of Palestinians marched around the esplanade, chanting “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 rules Gaza.

Less than a mile away, thousands of Christians marched in a procession retracing the traditional journey of Jesus to the cross in honor of Good Friday. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was open to visitors, who are returning to the Holy Land in large numbers for the first time since the pandemic began. The violence was confined to the mosque compound.

Israeli authorities said that before the violence broke out they had held negotiations with Muslim leaders to ensure calm. But the police say Palestinians stockpiled rocks and other objects inside the compound and hurled stones at the Mughrabi Gate, which leads to the Western Wall — a major Jewish holy site — triggering the violence.

Palestinian witnesses who spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns said a small group of Palestinians threw rocks at police, who then entered the compound in force, setting off a wider conflagration. Palestinians view any large deployment of police at Al Aqsa as a provocation.

Palestinians threw rocks and fireworks, and police fired tear gas and stun grenades on the sprawling esplanade surrounding the mosque. Dozens of Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the mosque as they fought Israeli security forces.

Israeli police later entered the mosque and arrested people inside. Israeli security forces rarely enter the building, an act also seen by Palestinians as an escalation.

The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service said it treated 152 people, many of them wounded by rubber-coated bullets or stun grenades.

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Video showed police beating a photographer for the Waqf with batons before knocking him to the ground and kicking him. The Waqf said the photographer, Rami Khatib, suffered a broken hand. There was no immediate comment from police.

Israeli police said three officers were wounded from “massive stone-throwing,” with two evacuated from the scene for treatment.

Neighboring Jordan, which has custodianship over the holy site, and the Palestinian Authority issued a joint statement accusing Israel of “a dangerous and condemnable escalation that threatens to explode the situation.” Egypt also condemned the “Israeli raid.”

Israel’s public security minister, Omer Barlev, who oversees the police force, said that Israel had “no interest” in violence at the holy site but that police were forced to confront “violent elements” who attacked them with stones and metal bars. He said Israel was committed to freedom of worship for Jews and Muslims alike.

Tensions have soared in recent weeks after 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, setting off clashes with Palestinians.

At least 25 Palestinians have been killed in the recent wave of violence, according to an Associated Press count, many of whom had carried out attacks or were involved in the clashes, but also an unarmed woman and a lawyer who appears to have been killed by mistake.

Earlier this week, Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza had called on Palestinians to camp out at the Al Aqsa Mosque over the weekend. Palestinians have long feared that Israel plans to take over the site or partition it.

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