Jerusalem: Armed Israeli forces stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Monday morning, firing rubber-coated bullets, tear gas, and sound bombs at Palestinian worshippers, wounding hundreds. The attack on Muslim worshippers came hours before a planned parade by hardline Israeli groups in a provocative annual flag-waving march near the third holiest place of Islam.
The Palestine Red Crescent reported more than 400 people injured after Jewish troops clashed with Palestinian demonstrators in East Jerusalem, extending Jerusalem’s worst unrest in years as tensions have soared in recent days in advance of the now-delayed Israeli court ruling on whether authorities were able to evict dozens of Palestinian families from the Old City’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and give their homes to Jewish settlers.
Tensions escalated first when Israeli troops attacked people worshipping on Lailat-al-Qadr, the night of prayer as per Islamic tradition, in Al-Aqsa on Sunday. Confrontations continued until after dawn. Footage from the scene showed crowds of worshippers through clouds of smoke being kicked and chased by the troops inside the mosque.
120 people were injured, including a one-year-old child, and 14 were taken to hospital.
Scores of the injured were in serious condition, medics said.
Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, the Imam and preacher of Al Aqsa Mosque, said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the raid on Al Aqsa compound “to satisfy the settlers, so that he would remain the prime minister.”
Sabri said “the violation” of the Al Aqsa Mosque compound is a “heinous crime that cannot be tolerated”.
Jerusalem’s Mufti Muhammad Hussein said it is the Islamic world’s “duty” to guard Al Aqsa.
“What is going on is a crime perpetrated by the Israeli occupation against the right to hold prayers,” he said.
The fresh skirmishes have also raised fears about further clashes during the most provocative ‘Jerusalem Day’ celebrations, which mark the anniversary of when Israeli troops captured the city in 1967 after defeating coalition of Arab states.
Flag march by Zionists enters Jerusalem’s Old City through the Damascus Gate and marches through the Muslim Quarter.
Israeli police has given the go-ahead for the parade despite days of unrest and international calls for restraint.
The Hamas, which is in power inside Gaza, urged Palestinians to remain at al-Aqsa until Ramadan ends, saying: “The resistance is ready to defend al-Aqsa at any cost.”
There were also signs the violence was spreading. Late on Sunday, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired four rockets towards Israel, setting off air raid sirens in southern city of Ashkelon and nearby areas, the Israeli military said.
Earlier in the day, Israel carried out an airstrike on a Hamas military group post in response to another rocket attack. People in Gaza also launched incendiary balloons into southern Israel during the day, causing dozens of fires.
Israel has faced mounting international criticism of its heavy police response and the planned evictions. Last week a UN rights body described the expulsion of Arabs from their homes as a possible war crime.
In East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, Palestinians feel an increasing threat from settlers who have sought to expand the Jewish presence there through buying homes, constructing buildings, and court-ordered evictions, such as the case in Sheikh Jarrah.
Nabeel al-Kurd, a 77-year-old whose family faces losing their home, said the evictions were a racist attempt to “expel Palestinians and replace them with settlers”.
Under Israeli law, Jews who can prove a title from before the 1948 war that accompanied the country’s creation can claim back their Jerusalem properties. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs were displaced in the same conflict but no similar law exists for Palestinians who lost their homes in the city.
“This is an attempt by the settlers, supported by the government, to seize our homes with force,” Kurd was quoted as saying by the Guardian, London. “Enough is enough.”
Ayman Odeh, a leading Arab politician in Israel, blamed the violence on Israel’s discriminatory policies toward the Palestinians and said it had provoked the violence. “Wherever you find occupation, you will find resistance,” he said at a news conference in Sheikh Jarrah, near the homes whose residents are under threat of eviction.
On Sunday afternoon, in light of the tensions and after a request from the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, the supreme court agreed to delay the hearing. It said it should be held within a month.
Still, the hiatus may not be enough to end the crisis. At previous Jerusalem Day marches, participants have harassed Arab residents and banged on shuttered doors as they descended through the Muslim quarter.
Palestinians have also complained of oppressive restrictions on gatherings during the holy month of Ramadan.
Nir Hasson, a writer for the left-leaning Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, accused Israeli authorities of making a series of bad decisions recently, “including the unrestrained freedom given to police in [Jerusalem’s] streets, where on Friday they acted as if they had been sent to fan the flames, not to extinguish them”.
He added: “In the end, half of Israel’s capital city is occupied, and 40% of its residents are non-citizens who view Israel as a foreign, oppressive regime. The police and other authorities must recognise this and act to restore calm.”
Jerusalem has long been the centre of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, with its holy sites revered by Jews and Muslims.
The Old City’s Western Wall forms part of the holiest site in Judaism – the Temple Mount. It is equally part of the al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, however, with the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque above it.
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