(Jerusalem) Israeli police announced on Wednesday that they had “arrested more than 350 people” in violent clashes overnight after security forces intervened in the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem to dislodge worshipers, sparking sharp condemnations.
The clashes inside one of the world’s most iconic Muslim places of worship came as Muslims arrive in the middle of Ramadan and Jews celebrate Passover from Wednesday evening, amid particularly tense conditions among Israelis and Palestinians since the beginning of the year.
In the Gaza Strip, the Islamist movement Hamas called on Palestinians “to go en masse to Al-Aqsa Mosque to defend it”, denouncing an “unprecedented crime” by Israeli forces. Rockets were fired into Israeli territory overnight, prompting a response from the Israeli army.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque is located on the Esplanade of the Mosques in East Jerusalem, a Palestinian area occupied and annexed by Israel. Third holiest site in Islam, the esplanade is built on what the Jews call the Temple Mount, the holiest place in Judaism.
Calm returned in the morning to the site, the surroundings of which are heavily guarded by the Israeli police who filter the entrances there. Jewish visitors, escorted by the police, briefly walked the esplanade, AFP journalists noted.
Overnight, Israeli forces burst into the Al-Aqsa Mosque, “breaking down doors and windows”, as worshipers gathered there to pray overnight, said Abdelkarim Ikraiem, a 74-year-old Palestinian. They were armed with “sticks, weapons, tear gas canisters and smoke bombs” and beat worshippers, he told AFP.
A video widely circulated on social media shows police clubbing people on the ground inside the mosque.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said on Wednesday it had treated at least 37 injured people.
Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh denounced a “level of brutality requiring urgent Palestinian, Arab and international action”.
Jordan, which administers Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, called on Israeli forces to immediately withdraw from the mosque, while the Arab League, which announced it would meet in the afternoon, denounced “an act of unacceptable aggression threatening to inflame the situation in the region”.
For its part, Berlin urged all parties concerned “not to throw more oil on the fire” and to “do everything to restore calm”.
Israeli police released a video showing explosions of what appear to be fireworks inside the place of worship, with silhouettes throwing rocks.
Other police footage shows riot officers moving forward protecting themselves with shields, a barricaded door, batteries of fireworks on the ground and officers evacuating at least five people with their hands cuffed behind their backs.
Police denounced the action of “outlaws” and masked “rioters” in the mosque.
“These ringleaders barricaded themselves there several hours after (the last evening prayers) in order to undermine public order and desecrate the mosque”, while chanting “slogans inciting hatred and violence” , she added in a press release.
Police said they cleared them out after trying to talk.
“Over 350 people” were arrested, she said, adding that an officer was injured by a rock in the leg.
Accusing those evicted of acting to “injure and murder police officers and injure Israeli citizens”, Israeli Homeland Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir praised the police for their “quick and determined action”. .
Following the clashes, several salvoes of rockets were fired from the northern Gaza Strip into Israeli territory, according to AFP journalists and witnesses.
According to a well-tested scenario, the Israeli army retaliated by striking what it presented as Hamas infrastructure in the territory under Israeli blockade, where a few dozen demonstrators had “sworn to defend and protect the Al-Aqsa mosque “.
Islamic Jihad, another armed group present in Gaza, said the rockets were “a first warning message” after the Israeli “aggression”.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been sucked into a new spiral of violence since the inauguration in late December of one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history. Nearly 110 people have died since the start of the year.