JERUSALEM: Israeli police have entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a sensitive Jerusalem holy site, two days after clashes with Palestinians.
The police cleared Palestinians out of the sprawling esplanade outside the mosque itself early Sunday, while dozens of Palestinians remained inside the building chanting “God is Greatest.”
The police said they entered to facilitate the routine visit of Jews to the holy site. They said Palestinians had stockpiled stones and set up barriers in anticipation of violence. The police said they were committed to facilitating freedom of worship for Jews and Muslims.
But shortly afterwards, Palestinians reported brief clashes with Israeli police, just outside the mosque compound. Palestinian medics said 10 people were wounded.
The site is the third holiest in Islam and the holiest for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount. It has long been a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian violence. Clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian demonstrators in Jerusalem last year erupted into an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Police also said stone throwers had attacked buses in east Jerusalem near the Old City. A number of buses, which appeared to be carrying Jewish visitors, were damaged and police said some passengers were lightly hurt. It said they arrested two suspects and were searching for others.
Clashes erupted at the site before dawn on Friday after police said Palestinians had hurled stones toward the Western Wall, an adjacent Jewish holy site. Police entered in force and clashed with dozens of Palestinians shortly after dawn prayers.
The hilltop compound is in Jerusalem's Old City, home to major sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. This year the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Christian holy week culminating in Easter Sunday and the weeklong Jewish Passover are all occurring at the same time, with tens of thousands of visitors flocking to the city after coronavirus restrictions have been mostly lifted.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, along with the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war. The Palestinians want a future state in all three territories. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally and is building and expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank. Hamas controls Gaza, which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the Islamic militant group seized power there in 2007.
Under longtime understandings, Jewish visitors are barred from praying on the Temple Mount, and for decades, Jews avoided worship there for religious reasons.
Israeli authorities say they are committed to maintaining the status quo, but in recent years large groups of nationalist and religious Jews have regularly visited the site with police escorts, something the Palestinians view as a provocation. Such practices have fueled concerns among Palestinians that Israel is plotting to take over the Al-Aqsa Mosque compount or partition it — a claim Israel strongly denies.
A radical Jewish group recently called on people to bring animals to the site in order to sacrifice them for Passover, offering cash rewards for those who succeeded or even tried. Israeli police work to prevent such activities, but the call was widely circulated by Palestinians on social media, along with calls for Muslims to prevent any sacrifices from taking place.