AFP: Israel braced for more protests Saturday after clashes at Jerusalem’s flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound wounded more than 200 people and as the US, EU and regional powers urged calm after days of escalating violence.
In the unrest following Muslim prayers Friday, Israeli riot police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at Palestinians who hurled rocks, bottles and fireworks at officers at Islam´s third-holiest site, which is also revered by Jews.
Israeli police said 18 officers were wounded while the Palestinian Red Crescent reported that 205 Palestinians were injured in the violence at Al-Aqsa and across annexed east Jerusalem, including more than 80 who were hospitalised.
Video footage showed Israeli forces storming the mosque´s sprawling plaza and firing sound grenades inside the building, where throngs of worshippers including women and children were praying on the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
An AFP reporter witnessed hundreds of Palestinians hurling stones at police. He said officers locked the doors of Al-Aqsa mosque, trapping worshippers for at least an hour.
The clashes came as tensions have soared over Israeli restrictions on access to parts of the Old City during Ramadan and the threat of eviction hanging over four Palestinian families in east Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers.
The Islamist movement Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, urged Palestinians to remain at the Al-Aqsa compound until Thursday morning, when Ramadan ends, warning that “the resistance is ready to defend Al-Aqsa at any cost”.
Al-Aqsa is in the Haram al-Sharif compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, which also includes the Dome of the Rock.
– ´Heavy price´ –
On Saturday dozens of Arab citizens of Israel protested in Nazareth in solidarity with Jerusalem Palestinians, holding signs that read “the occupation is terrorism”.
The High Follow up Committee for the Arabs in Israel, which represents the country´s 20 percent minority, called for protests in other Arab cities and Jerusalem.
The United States — a staunch Israeli ally whose tone has however toughened under US President Joe Biden — said it was “extremely concerned” by the events and urged both sides to “avoid steps that exacerbate tensions or take us farther away from peace”.
“This includes evictions in east Jerusalem, settlement activity, home demolitions and acts of terrorism,” the State Department said.
The European Union called on the authorities “to act urgently to de-escalate the current tensions,” saying “violence and incitement are unacceptable and the perpetrators on all sides must be held accountable”.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said he held the Israeli government responsible for the unrest and voiced “full support for our heroes in Al-Aqsa”.
Yair Lapid, an Israeli politician attempting to form a coalition government to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sent encouragement to police officers.
“The state of Israel will not let violence run loose and definitely will not allow terror groups to threaten it,” he tweeted. “Whoever wants to harm us must know that he will pay a heavy price.”
– ´Barbaric attack´ –
Al-Aqsa mosque director Omar al-Kiswani said in a video posted by Palestinian activists that, directly after the evening iftar break fast meal, “the Al-Aqsa mosque was stormed and unarmed worshippers were attacked to empty it”.
Hundreds of people slept on the carpets on the mosque Friday night. Although this is not unusual during Ramadan, many stayed in an act of defiance against the police action.
Jordan condemned Israel´s “barbaric attack”, and Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, Pakistan and Qatar blasted Israeli forces for the confrontation.
Israel also drew criticism from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, two countries that signed normalisation accords with Israel last year.
Iran called on the United Nations to condemn the Israeli police actions, arguing that “this war crime once again proved to the world the criminal nature of the illegitimate Zionist regime”.
The clashes followed a week of intensifying violence.
Earlier Friday, Israeli police said officers killed two Palestinians and wounded a third after the three men opened fire on the Salem base in the occupied West Bank — the latest of several deadly shootings that week.
Clashes have also repeatedly broken out in east Jerusalem´s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, fuelled by a years-long attempt by Jewish settlers to take over Palestinian homes.
Israel´s Supreme Court is to hold a new hearing in the case on Monday, when Israelis mark Jerusalem Day to celebrate the “liberation” of the city, including with a parade of Israeli flags through the Old City.