Palestinian Muslims were barred from worshipping at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound on Tuesday as hundreds of Israelis entered with a police escort for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The ban followed a similar restriction enforced a day earlier that led to clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters.
Tensions have flared among Palestinians as Orthodox Jews increasingly push for access to the compound, which they consider Judaism’s holiest site and the location where two ancient Jewish temples once stood. For regular devotions, Jews pray at the Western Wall, which lies below the compound. The mosque is also regarded as one of Islam’s holiest sites, as Muslims believe it was where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
Jewish visits to the site have long been a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with many Palestinians alleging such visits are politically motivated. Late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then the country's opposition leader, visited in 2000, and the protests helped lead to an uprising Palestinians call the “Al-Aqsa Intifada,” often known as the Second Intifada.
This week clashes erupted after Palestinian protesters broke through Israeli police lines and entered the compound. Israeli police targeted them with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and sound bombs, damaging the mosque, witnesses told Reuters.
Reuters TV footage recorded loud blasts and showed Israeli police in riot gear expelling Palestinians from the mosque.
Omar Kiswani, the director of Al-Aqsa mosque, said Israeli police fired on the protesters while they were inside. Several ancient chandeliers were destroyed when security forces fired sound bombs.
“We couldn’t breathe from the tear gas inside,” he told Reuters. “There were 14 injuries from rubber bullets, and anybody who was inside was wounded by gas inhalation.”
Kiswani said that at least 254 Jewish Israelis visited the site on Tuesday.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said security forces were deployed to prevent Palestinians from disrupting the Jewish visit to the site. As such, all Palestinians under the age of 60 were barred from entering the mosque compound.
“It was a police initiative to prevent disturbances,” Rosenfeld said, adding that four Palestinians were arrested. He said protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails.
Hours after the clashes Monday, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the Israeli visits “provocations.”
"I am ... deeply concerned by repeated provocations at the holy sites in Jerusalem. These only inflame tensions and must stop," Ban said at a joint news conference with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Ramallah.
Also overnight, Israeli settlers set fire to a mosque near the West Bank city of Nablus, Palestinian news outlet Maan News reported. It was the latest in a series of so-called “price tag” attacks — settler assaults on Palestinians and their property that follow Israeli authorities’ forced evacuation of small groups of Israeli settlers from the West Bank.
All settlements on occupied territory are considered illegal under international law, but Israel considers only non-state-sponsored settlements, called “outposts,” to be against the law. When the Israeli military closes such outposts, settlers have carried out price tag attacks against Palestinians in response.
On Monday night Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian official responsible for monitoring settlement activity, told Maan News that a group of settlers broke down the doors and smashed the windows of the Abu Baker al-Saddiq mosque.
The settlers also spray-painted slogans on the interior of the mosque and set fire to the building before Palestinians from the village chased them out, Maan reported.
With wire services