Attack at Jerusalem mosque prompts fears of wider fighting


Israeli police stormed into the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City early Wednesday, firing stun grenades at Palestinian youths who hurled firecrackers at them in a burst of violence during a sensitive holiday season. Palestinian militants in Gaza responded with rocket fire on southern Israel, prompting repeated Israeli airstrikes.

The fighting, coming as Muslims mark the holiday month of Ramadan and Jews prepare to begin the Passover festival on Wednesday evening, raised fears of a wider conflagration. Similar clashes two years ago erupted into an 11-day war between Israel and the ruling Hamas militant group in Gaza. The Israeli military said one soldier was shot in a separate incident in the occupied West Bank.

The mosque sits on a sensitive hilltop compound holy to both Jews and Muslims. Al-Aqsa is the third-holiest site in Islam and is typically packed with worshippers during Ramadan. The spot, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, is also the holiest site in Judaism, who revere it as the location of the biblical Jewish temples. The conflicting claims fuel constant tensions that have spilled over to violence numerous times in the past.

The official Palestinian news agency Wafa said that dozens of worshippers who were spending the night praying were injured in the police raid.

The youths barricaded themselves inside the mosque in response to calls by Jewish ultranationalists to carry out a ritual slaughter of a goat in the compound, imitating the ancient ritual sacrifice executed on Passover in biblical times.

Israel bars these slaughters on the site, but calls by Jewish extremists to revive the practice, including offers of cash rewards to anyone who even attempts to bring an animal into the compound, have amplified fears among Muslims that Israel is plotting to take over the site. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is committed to preserving the status quo.

Israeli police said they moved in after “several law-breaking youths and masked agitators” brought fireworks, sticks and stones and barricaded themselves into the mosque. Police said the youths chanted violent slogans and locked the front doors.

“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,” police said.

Video released by police showed the repeated explosions of fireworks inside the mosque. One amateur video taken by Palestinians showed police scuffling with people and beating them with clubs and rifle butts as a woman’s voice could be heard shouting, “Oh God. Oh God.”

Outside the gate, police dispersed groups of youths with stun grenades and rubber bullets.

Police said one officer was injured in the leg, while some 350 people were arrested. They released images of fireworks and at least one large stone that appeared to have been hurled.

Talab Abu Eisha, 49, said more than 400 men, women and children were praying at Al-Aqsa when the police encircled the mosque.

“The youths were afraid and started closing the doors,” he said, adding that police forces “stormed the eastern corner, beating and arresting men there.”

”It was an unprecedented scene of violence in terms of police brutality and intention to hurt the youths,” he said, denying police claims that young men were hiding fireworks and rocks. He added that the police prevented all men under 50 years old from passing through the Old City’s gates leading to the compound for the dawn prayers Wednesday morning.

Palestinian militants responded by firing a barrage of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel, setting off air raid sirens in the region as residents were preparing for the beginning of the weeklong Passover holiday.

The Israeli military said a total of five rockets were fired, and all were intercepted. Hours later, Israel responded with airstrikes that the army said hit Hamas weapons storage and manufacturing sites.

By early morning, the Jerusalem compound had quieted down, and religious Jews were seen walking through the site ahead of Passover. Jews are permitted to visit the compound, but not pray there, under longstanding agreements. But such visits, which have grown in numbers in recent years, have added to Palestinian suspicions, particularly because some Jews are often seen quietly praying.

Mainstream Orthodox Jews, including Israel’s chief rabbi, vehemently oppose Jewish visits to the site. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the head rabbi of the adjacent Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, said Tuesday that he would prevent any animals bring brought to the entrance to the site.

Tensions have been steadily rising since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government took office late last year. The government is dominated by religious and ultranationalist hard-liners, and the overlap of the Jewish and Muslim holidays – when tens of thousands of worshippers make their way to contested Jerusalem — has raised fears of violence.

The police force is overseen by Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist with a history of violent rhetoric and actions against Palestinians.

In Gaza, Hamas called for large protests and people started gathering in the streets, with calls to head for the heavily guarded Gaza-Israel frontier for more violent demonstrations.

The Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad also called for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Israel to gather around Al-Aqsa Mosque and confront Israeli forces.

Ziyad al-Nakhala, leader of Islamic Jihad, said the situation at Al-Aqsa was a “serious threat.”

He said that Palestinians must be prepared “for the inevitable confrontation in the coming days.”

In the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian leadership condemned the attack on the worshippers. The spokesman of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, warned Israel that such a move “exceeds all red lines and will lead to a large explosion.”

The government of Jordan, which serves as the custodian of the mosque, condemned the Israeli raid “in the strongest terms.” The Foreign Ministry warned “of the consequences of this dangerous escalation and held Israel responsible for the safety of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

As violence was unfolding in Jerusalem, the Israeli military reported fighting in a Palestinian town in the occupied West Bank. It said residents of Beit Umar, near the volatile city of Hebron, burned tires, hurled rocks and explosives at soldiers. It said one soldier was shot by armed suspects, who managed to flee.

Earlier on Tuesday, a Palestinian suspect stabbed two Israelis near an army base south of Tel Aviv, police said, in the latest incident in a yearlong spate of violence that shows no sign of abating.

The Magen David Adom paramedic service said first responders treated two men for serious and light stab wounds in the incident on a highway near the Tzrifin military base. The men were taken to a nearby hospital for treatment.

Israeli media identified the two victims as soldiers.

Police said that civilians at the scene apprehended the suspected attacker, who was taken into police custody for questioning.



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