Israeli security forces and Palestinians clashed on Friday at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound, a site sacred to both Muslims and Jews, after a week of smouldering tensions and the first exchange of fire in Gaza in months.
The violence comes after a spate of Palestinian attacks in Israeli cities over the past month, a major Israeli military operation in the occupied West Bank, a political crisis that has put the future of the Israeli governing coalition in doubt, and amid the confluence of the Muslim Ramadan holiday and the Jewish Passover festival.
The unrest now threatens to spill over into Arab Israeli cities, with the Israeli police putting some of its reserve forces on alert ahead of planned demonstrations later on Friday. Similar tensions led to an 11-day conflict last year between Israel and the militant Hamas group in Gaza.
Early morning clashes at al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam’s third-holiest site, have been regular occurrences for the past week. Early on Friday, Israeli riot police deployed stun grenades and rubber bullets against about 200 Palestinian demonstrators wielding rocks and fireworks and hoisting Hamas flags.
“With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you al-Aqsa,” some of the Palestinians chanted.
After three hours of clashes, Israeli police said the compound had been cleared of “rioters” but unrest started again in the afternoon with Israeli forces dropping tear gas via a drone to disperse throngs of Palestinians.
Palestinian officials have accused Israel of violating longstanding arrangements around the holy site, referred to in Jewish tradition as the Temple Mount, site of the biblical Jewish temple.
Jewish worshipers are allowed to visit the compound but not pray, although ultranationalist groups in recent years have stretched the meaning of “visit” to its breaking point, according to some analysts – including in the past week during Passover when more than 2,000 Israelis visited the flashpoint site, walking through with police escorts while chanting incantations.
Senior Palestinian Authority Minister Hussein al-Sheikh on Tuesday told the Israeli government, “under its protection, allows Jewish extremists to storm al-Aqsa on a daily basis. . . the so-called ‘status quo’ is being destroyed ”. Israeli officials have rejected the charges and said the escalating tensions were a result of a concerted campaign by Islamist militant groups, including Hamas.
Israeli police on Wednesday blocked an ultranationalist march from reaching Jerusalem’s predominantly Muslim Damascus Gate area, as Israeli authorities announced that non-Muslims would be barred from visiting al-Aqsa mosque compound from Friday until Ramadan’s culmination at the end of the month.
“Israel is preserving and will continue to preserve the status quo on Temple Mount and we have no intention of changing whatsoever,” Yair Lapid, Israel’s foreign minister, said on Thursday while meeting a US state department delegation dispatched to the region to help restore calm.
Jordan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – which all have formal relations with Israel – have condemned the Israeli actions in Jerusalem. The Arab-Israeli Ra’am party, a key coalition ally of the Israeli government, announced the suspension of its parliamentary activity due to what it called Israeli “violations” at al-Aqsa.
“The scale of violence this year is smaller [compared with the lead-up to last year’s Gaza war]but the problem is that over the past week the focal point has been the religious element of the conflict, al-Aqsa versus the Temple Mount, Ramadan versus Passover, which is very dangerous, ”said Ibrahim Dalalsha, director of the Horizon Center, a Ramallah think-tank.
Twice this week a rocket was fired from Gaza into southern Israel, although no Palestinian faction claimed responsibility. In response, Israel twice launched air strikes against Hamas military targets. No injuries were reported on either side. It was the first such exchange of fire between Palestinians in Gaza and Israel since January.
Analysts say that both Hamas and Israel are likely not looking to renew outright hostilities. “Hamas has been careful to keep Gaza out of it, they are not ready yet [after last year’s war], ”Dalalsha said. “For them the time is not ripe for confrontation in Gaza, but the time is very ripe to escalate tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank.”