Clashes erupt as Israel police storm flashpoint Jerusalem mosque

One Palestinian witness charged that police, armed with batons, tear gas grenades and smoke bombs, burst into the mosque "by force" and "beat the women and men" worshipping there.

Published: 05th April 2023 09:38 PM  |   Last Updated: 05th April 2023 09:38 PM   |  A+A-

Israel police argues with a Palestinian worshipers the Old City of Jerusalem. (Photo | AP)

FILE: Israel police argues with a Palestinian worshipers the Old City of Jerusalem. (Photo | AP)


Israeli police clashed with Palestinians inside Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque Wednesday, sparking a military exchange of rockets and air strikes in flaring violence as the Jewish Passover coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Armed police in riot gear stormed the mosque's prayer hall before dawn, with the goal of dislodging "law-breaking youths and masked agitators" who they said had barricaded themselves inside following evening prayers.

The officers were met with a barrage of rocks and fireworks, police video showed. More than 350 arrests were made in the raid, which drew threats from Palestinian groups and wide condemnation from Muslim countries.

One Palestinian witness, Abdel Karim Ikraiem, 74, charged that police, armed with batons, tear gas grenades and smoke bombs, burst into the mosque "by force" and "beat the women and men" worshipping there.

A video widely circulated on social media showed police clubbing people on the floor inside the mosque.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said it had treated 37 people for injuries, including some after their release from custody.

Israel's far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir voiced his "complete backing" for police and praised their "swift and determined" actions.

Palestinian militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, called on West Bank Palestinians "to go en masse to the Al-Aqsa mosque to defend it".

Rockets were fired overnight from Gaza into Israel, without causing casualties, prompting retaliatory Israeli air strikes.

The mosque in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem is Islam's third holiest site. It is built on top of what Jews call the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest site.

It has been a frequent flashpoint, particularly during Ramadan, and clashes there in May 2021 set off the latest Gaza war that raged for 11 days.

On Gaza's streets, protesters burnt tyres and chanted: "We swear to defend and protect the Al-Aqsa mosque."

Calm had returned to the compound by late morning, when Israeli police escorted a small group of Jewish visitors through the site. An officer told an AFP journalist that police were only allowing those aged 60 and over to access the compound.

Israeli police said the Palestinians had barricaded themselves inside the mosque from Tuesday evening, and ahead of Passover which starts Wednesday evening.

"After many and prolonged attempts to get them out by talking to no avail, police forces were forced to enter the compound in order to get them out with the intentions to allow the Fajr (dawn) prayer and to prevent a violent disturbance," said a police statement.

"When the police entered, stones were thrown at them and fireworks were fired from inside the mosque by a large group of agitators," police said, reporting one officer injured in the leg by a stone.

Within hours, at least nine rockets were fired from Gaza towards Israel, the army said, adding that five were intercepted by air defences, and four struck uninhabited areas.

"In response" Israeli fighter jets struck two suspected Hamas weapons manufacturing sites in the Gaza Strip, the army said.

The air strikes were followed by new rocket fire from Gaza, and at around 6:15 am (0415 GMT), Israeli jets carried out fresh strikes, AFP journalists reported.

No casualties were reported in the first salvo of strikes.

Islamic Jihad, another militant group based in Gaza, said the rockets were "a first warning message" following the Israeli "aggression".

Palestinian civil affairs minister Hussein al-Sheikh condemned the Israeli police action inside Al-Aqsa, saying "the level of brutality requires urgent Palestinian, Arab and international action".

The Arab League denounced "the attack on the faithful" and called an emergency meeting for Wednesday afternoon.

Jordan, which administers the mosque, condemned its "storming", and called on Israeli forces to leave the compound immediately.

Saudi Arabia expressed its "categorical rejection" of actions that contradict "international principles and norms in respect of religious sanctities".

Egypt, as frequent mediator in the conflict, said it "holds Israel, the occupying power, responsible for this dangerous escalation".

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has descended into intensifying violence since the most right-wing government in Israel's history took office in late December under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

So far this year, it has claimed the lives of at least 91 Palestinians, 15 Israelis and one Ukrainian, according to an AFP tally based on official sources from both sides.

On the Palestinian side, those killed include combatants as well as civilians. On the Israeli side, they include two members of the Arab minority.


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