Israeli police entered Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound before dawn on Wednesday and clashed with worshippers, in what police claimed was a response to 'rioting' that set off a furious reaction across the West Bank and crossborder strikes in Gaza.
The incident, during the holy month of Ramazan and on the eve of the Jewish Passover, came amid fears that tensions built up during a year of escalating violence could be unleashed at the Al-Aqsa mosque, where clashes in 2021 set off 10-days of attacks by Israel on Gaza.
Israeli police raid Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem
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Overnight, at least nine rockets were fired from Gaza by Palestinian freedom fighters, prompting air strikes from Israel, which struck what it claimed were Hamas 'training camps', setting off ground-shaking explosions that were heard across the blockaded coastal strip.
Witnesses said Israeli tanks also shelled Hamas positions along the border fence in the southern part of the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s anti-missile system intercepted several rockets fired from Gaza early Wednesday. The rockets came soon after Israeli police stormed into the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City.
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The Palestinian Red Crescent said 12 Palestinians sustained wounds from rubber-tipped bullets and beatings in clashes with Israeli police. It added that Israeli forces were preventing its medics from reaching the area.
"In the yard to the eastern part of the compound, the police fired tear gas and stun grenades, it was a scene that I can't describe," said Fahmi Abbas, a worshipper at the mosque. "Then they stormed in and started beating everyone. They detained people and put the young men face down on the ground while they continued beating them."
Israeli police claimed in a statement that security units were "forced to enter" the compound after what it called masked agitators locked themselves inside the mosque with fireworks, sticks and stones.
"When the police entered, stones were thrown at them and fireworks were fired from inside the mosque by a large group of agitators," the statement claimed, adding that a police officer was wounded in the leg.
Thousands of worshippers have been spending the night in the mosque compound, amid fears of possible clashes with Jewish visitors to the site, which they revere as the Temple Mount, the site of Judaism's two ancient Temples.
Palestinian lawyer Firas al-Jibrini said police arrested around 500 people who were taken for questioning.
The incident drew a sharp reaction from Arab countries. Jordan and Egypt, both involved in recent US-backed efforts to de-escalate tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, issued separate statements strongly condemning the incident, while Saudi Arabia, with whom Israel hopes to normalise ties, said Israel's "storming" of Al-Aqsa undermined peace efforts.
The Palestinian leadership condemned Israel's attacks on worshippers, which they described as a crime.
"We warn the occupation against crossing red lines at holy sites, which will lead to a big explosion," said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesperson for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Israeli military said a soldier was shot and wounded during clashes with Palestinians in the West Bank town of Beit Ummar.
Over the past year, Israeli forces have made thousands of arrests in the West Bank and killed more than 250 Palestinians, while more than 40 Israelis and three Ukrainians have died in Palestinian attacks.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City where the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is located, in a 1967 war and later annexed it in a move not recognised internationally. It regards Jerusalem as its eternal and indivisible capital.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem for the capital of an independent state they seek in the West Bank and Gaza.