Clashes erupt at Jerusalem holy site, 67 Palestinians injured: NPR
JERUSALEM — Israeli security forces entered the compound of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem before dawn as thousands of Palestinians gathered for prayers during the holy month of Ramadan, sparking clashes that officials say doctors, injured at least 67 Palestinians.
Israel said its forces entered to remove rocks and stones that had been gathered in anticipation of the violence. The holy site, which is sacred to Jews and Muslims, has often been the epicenter of Israeli-Palestinian unrest, and tensions have already escalated amid a recent spate of violence.
The clashes come at a particularly sensitive time. This year, Ramadan coincides with Passover, a major Jewish week-long holiday beginning on Friday at sundown, and Christian Holy Week, which culminates on Easter Sunday. The holiday is expected to draw tens of thousands of worshipers to Jerusalem’s Old City, home to major sites sacred to all three religions.
Videos circulating online showed Palestinians throwing rocks and police firing tear gas and stun grenades at the large esplanade surrounding the mosque. Others showed worshipers barricading themselves inside the mosque itself amid what appeared to be clouds of tear gas.
The Palestine Red Crescent Society emergency service said it had evacuated 67 people to hospitals who had been injured by rubber bullets or stun grenades, or beaten with batons. Staffing said one of the guards at the site was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said dozens of masked men carrying Palestinian and Hamas flags marched towards the compound on Friday morning and picked up stones.
“Police were forced into the field to disperse the crowd and remove stones and boulders, to prevent further violence,” he tweeted.
Police said they waited until the prayers were over and the crowd started to disperse. In a statement, he said crowds had begun throwing stones towards the Western Wall, a nearby Jewish holy site, forcing them to take action. They said they did not enter the mosque itself.
The Palestinians view any major police deployment in Al-Aqsa as a major provocation.
The mosque is the third holiest place in Islam. It is built on a hill in the Old City of Jerusalem which is the holiest site for the Jews, who call it the Temple Mount. It was a major flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian violence for decades and was the epicenter of the 2000-2005 Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
Tensions have skyrocketed in recent weeks following a series of Palestinian bombings that killed 14 people inside Israel. Israel has carried out a wave of arrests and military operations across the occupied West Bank, sparking clashes with Palestinians.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said a 17-year-old died on Friday morning from injuries sustained during clashes with Israeli forces in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank, the day before.
At least 25 Palestinians have been killed in the recent spate of violence, according to an Associated Press tally, many of whom had carried out the attacks or were involved in the clashes, but also an unarmed woman and a lawyer who appear to have been killed by mistake.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians were expected to gather at Al-Aqsa for Friday prayers.
Weeks of protests and clashes in Jerusalem during Ramadan last year eventually sparked an 11-day war with the Islamic militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.
Israel lifted restrictions and took other steps to try to calm tensions ahead of Ramadan, but military attacks and raids sparked a new wave of unrest.
Hamas condemned what it called “brutal attacks” on Al-Aqsa worshipers by Israeli forces, saying Israel would bear “all the consequences”. He called on all Palestinians to “stand with our people in Jerusalem”.
Earlier this week, Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza called on Palestinians to camp at Al-Aqsa Mosque over the weekend. Palestinians have long feared that Israel is considering taking over the site or dividing it.
Israeli authorities say they are determined to maintain the status quo, but in recent years nationalist and religious Jews have visited the site in large numbers with police escorts.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, home to Al-Aqsa and other major holy sites, in the 1967 war and annexed it in an internationally unrecognized move. The Palestinians want the eastern part of the city to be the capital of a future independent state comprising the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel also captured in the war nearly 55 years ago.