Violence broke out at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City overnight after Israeli police stormed the sensitive compound, fueling fear that already-high tension in the heart of the Middle East could erupt again into conflict during a sensitive holiday season.
Al-Aqsa is one of the holiest sites in Islam and shares a hilltop with the Temple Mount, the holiest site for Jews. Palestinians consider the site a national symbol, and the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli security forces was a major catalyst for 11 days of violent clashes in 2021.
In response to the raid, a series of rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip, which is run by the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Israel then said it had conducted airstrikes targeting Hamas weapons storage and manufacturing sites.
Since the holy Muslim month of Ramadan began on March 22, some Palestinian worshippers have been trying to stay overnight inside Al-Aqsa, which is typically permitted only during the final 10 days of the festive period, The Associated Press reported. Israeli police have entered the site daily to evict the worshippers, the AP said.
After tens of thousands of people attended prayers at Al-Aqsa Tuesday evening, Israeli officials said they were forced to enter the compound when hundreds of Palestinian “agitators” barricaded themselves inside the mosque armed with fireworks and stones.
Videos posted online appeared to show police storming the compound, beating Palestinians with batons and rifle butts and restraining dozens of worshipers, and Palestinians taking aim at police with fireworks. Police said rocks had also been thrown at the officers.
“The youths were afraid and started closing the doors,” Talab Abu Eisha, who was there at the time of the raid, told the AP. “It was an unprecedented scene of violence in terms of police brutality.”
“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,” the Israeli police said.
Police dispersed Palestinians outside the mosque with rubber bullets and stun grenades.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said at least 50 Palestinians were injured in the raid. The police said 350 people were arrested, and one officer was injured in the leg.
The violence at the mosque triggered calls for mass protests by Hamas militants in Gaza. Palestinian civil affairs minister Hussein al-Sheikh said the “the level of brutality requires urgent Palestinian, Arab and international action,” according to the AFP news agency.
Muslim-majority states quickly issued statements condemning the raid, including Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Arab League called an emergency meeting later on Wednesday.
Tensions have soared in the region since Israel’s new far-right, ultra-nationalist government coalition took power late last year under returning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel’s police are now overseen by one of the most radical members of Netanyahu’s cabinet, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was previously convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization.
Al-Aqsa is managed by an Islamic endowment called the Waqf as part of a long-standing agreement under which Muslims are allowed to pray at the site but Jews and Christians are not. The Waqf called the raid a “flagrant violation of the identity and function of the mosque as a place of worship for Muslims.”
Netanyahu has said he is committed to maintaining the status quo at the sensitive site.