JERUSALEM: Palestinian worshippers clashed with Israeli police late Friday at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, a major holy site sacred to Muslims and Jews, in an escalation of weeks of violence in Jerusalem that has reverberated across the region.
The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service said 53 people were wounded in clashes with police there and elsewhere in Jerusalem, including 23 who were hospitalized. It says most were wounded in the face and eyes by rubber-coated bullets and shrapnel from stun grenades. Israel said six police officers were wounded.
Earlier Friday, Israeli troops shot and killed two Palestinians and wounded a third after the men opened fire on a base belonging to Israel’s paramilitary Border Police force in the occupied West Bank, the latest in a series of deadly confrontations in recent weeks that has coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. More unrest appears likely next week.
Tensions have soared in recent weeks in east Jerusalem, which is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians. At the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Israel blocked off a popular gathering spot where Palestinians traditionally socialize at the end of their daylong fast. The move set off two weeks of clashes before Israel lifted the restrictions.
But in recent days, clashes have resumed due to Israel’s threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in east Jerusalem, who have been embroiled in a long legal battle with Israeli settlers trying to acquire property in the neighborhood.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” about the heightened tensions and called on all sides to work to de-escalate them. It also expressed concern about the threatened evictions.
“It’s critical to avoid unilateral steps that would exacerbate tensions or take us further away from peace. And that would include evictions, settlement activity, and home demolitions,” US State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter told reporters in Washington.
The Al-Aqsa mosque compound is the third holiest site in Islam. The site is also the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount and revere it as the spot where the biblical Temples stood. It has long been a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian violence and was the epicenter of the 2000 Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
Israeli police deployed in large numbers as Muslim worshippers were holding evening prayers at the site. It was unclear what sparked the violence, but videos circulating online showed worshippers throwing chairs, shoes and rocks at police, who fired stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets to disperse them. Smaller clashes broke out elsewhere in Jerusalem.
The Israeli police said protesters hurled stones, fireworks and other objects at them, wounding six officers who required medical treatment. “We will respond with a heavy hand to all violent disturbances, riots and attacks on our forces,” it said in a statement.
Earlier, some 70,000 worshippers had attended the final Friday prayers of Ramadan at Al-Aqsa, the Islamic endowment that oversees the site said. Thousands protested afterwards, waving the green flags of the Islamic militant group Hamas and chanting pro-Hamas slogans.
Neighboring Jordan, which serves as the custodian of Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites, had earlier warned Israel against further “provocative” steps, while Israel’s archenemy Iran encouraged the violence.
In the attack on Friday morning, Israeli police said three attackers fired on the base near the northern West Bank town of Jenin. The Border Police and an Israeli soldier returned fire, killing two of the men and wounding the third, who was evacuated to a hospital.
Israelis and Palestinians are bracing for more violence in the coming days.
Sunday night is “Laylat Al-Qadr” or the “Night of Destiny,” the most sacred in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Worshippers will gather for intense nighttime prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Sunday night is also the start of Jerusalem Day, a national holiday in which Israel celebrates its annexation of east Jerusalem and religious nationalists hold parades and other celebrations in the city. On Monday, an Israeli court is expected to issue a verdict on the evictions.
Iran was meanwhile marking its own Quds, or Jerusalem, Day on Friday. The national holiday typically features anti-Israel protests and fiery speeches by Iranian leaders predicting Israel’s demise.
“The downward and declining movement of the Zionist regime has begun and will not stop,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a televised address. He called for continuing armed “resistance” in the Palestinian territories and urged Muslim nations support it.
This year, Ramadan has coincided with an uptick in Israeli-Palestinian violence focused on Jerusalem.
On Thursday, Israeli forces arrested a Palestinian suspected of carrying out a drive-by shooting earlier this week in the West Bank that killed an Israeli and wounded two others. The day before, Israeli troops shot and killed a 16-year-old Palestinian near the West Bank city of Nablus. The military said several Palestinians had thrown firebombs toward soldiers.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza — territories the Palestinians want for their future state — in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally and views the entire city as its capital.
The Palestinians view east Jerusalem — which includes major holy sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims — as their capital, and its fate is one of the most sensitive issues in the conflict. In a call to Palestine TV, President Mahmoud Abbas praised the “courageous stand” of the protesters and said Israel bore full responsibility for the violence.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry had earlier accused the Palestinians of seizing on the threatened evictions, which it described as a “real-estate dispute between private parties,” in order to incite violence.
“The (Palestinian Authority) and Palestinian terror groups will bear full responsibility for the violence emanating from their actions. The Israel police will ensure public order is maintained,” it tweeted earlier in the day.
Neighboring Jordan, which made peace with Israel in 1994 and is the custodian of Al-Aqsa, said “Israel’s continuation of its illegal practices and provocative steps” in the city is a “dangerous game.”
“Building and expanding settlements, confiscating lands, demolishing homes and deporting Palestinians from their homes are illegal practices that perpetuate the occupation and undermine the chances of achieving a just and comprehensive peace, which is a regional and international necessity,” Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi tweeted.
The Islamic militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and opposes Israel’s existence, has egged on the violence, and Palestinian militants in Gaza have fired rockets in support of the protesters.