Israel’s national police chief on Saturday announced he was beefing up forces in Jerusalem ahead of expected disturbances in the coming days following a night of heavy clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police in the holy city.
Palestinian medics said more than 200 Palestinians were wounded in the Friday night clashes at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound and elsewhere in Jerusalem. The violence drew condemnations from Israel’s Arab allies, and calls for calm from the United States and Europe.Israel has been dealing with the heaviest unrest in Jerusalem in several years, with near-nightly clashes between police and Palestinian protesters throughout the current Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The protests broke out at the beginning of Ramadan three weeks ago when Israel restricted gatherings at a popular meeting spot outside Jerusalem’s Old City. Israel removed the restrictions, briefly calming the situation, but protests have reignited in recent days over the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinians from their homes in east Jerusalem, which is claimed by both sides in their decades-old conflict.
Other recent developments, including the cancellation of Palestinian elections, deadly violence in which a Palestinian teenager, two Palestinian gunmen and a young Israeli man were killed in separate incidents in the West Bank, and the election to Israel’s parliament of a far-right Jewish nationalist party, have contributed to the unrest.
It was unclear what set off the violence at Al-Aqsa, which erupted when Israeli police in riot gear deployed in large numbers as thousands of Muslim worshippers were holding evening prayers at the sprawling hilltop esplanade.
Throughout the night, large groups of protesters could be seen hurling rocks as police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades. At one point, police entered one of the buildings in the complex, which includes the mosque and iconic golden Dome of the Rock.
The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service said 88 of the wounded were hospitalized. The Palestinian Health Ministry said 83 people were wounded by rubber-coated bullets, including three who were shot in the eye, two with serious head injuries and two with broken jaws.
Police said protesters hurled stones, fireworks and other objects at them, wounding 17 officers, half of whom were hospitalized.
The Al-Aqsa compound is the third holiest site in Islam. It is also the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount because it was the location of the biblical temples. It has long been a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was the epicenter of the 2000 Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
Saturday night is “Laylat al-Qadr” or the “Night of Destiny,” the most sacred during Ramadan. Thousands of worshippers were expected to gather for intense nighttime prayers at Al-Aqsa.
Israeli Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai said he had ordered up reinforcements ahead of Laylat al-Qadr, saying “the right to demonstrate will be respected but public disturbances will be met with force and zero tolerance. I call on everyone to act responsibly and with restraint.”
Police stopped more than a dozen buses that were filled with Arab citizens on the main highway heading to Jerusalem for Ramadan prayers. Israel’s public broadcaster Kan said police stopped the buses for a security check, prompting travelers to exit the vehicles, block traffic and pray in the highway in protest. The road was reopened several hours later.
In recent days, protests have grown over Israel’s threatened eviction in Sheikh Jarrah in east Jerusalem of dozens of Palestinians embroiled in a long legal battle with Israeli settlers trying to acquire property in the neighborhood.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” about both the violence and the threatened evictions, and was in contact with leaders on both sides to try and de-escalate tensions.
“It is critical to avoid steps that exacerbate tensions or take us farther away from peace,” the State Department said. “This includes evictions in East Jerusalem, settlement activity, home demolitions, and acts of terrorism.”
The European Union also urged calm and expressed concern about the potential evictions, saying they are “illegal under international humanitarian law and only serve to fuel tensions on the ground.”
Egypt and Jordan, which made peace with Israel decades ago, condemned its actions, as did the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, which was one of four Arab countries that signed U.S.-brokered normalization agreements with Israel last year.
Israelis and Palestinians are bracing for more unrest in the coming days.
Sunday night is the start of Jerusalem Day, a national holiday in which Israel celebrates its annexation of east Jerusalem and religious nationalists hold parades and other celebrations in the city. On Monday, an Israeli court is expected to issue a verdict on the evictions.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza — territories the Palestinians want for their future state — in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally, and views the entire city as its capital.
The Palestinians view east Jerusalem — which includes major holy sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims — as their capital, and its fate is one of the most sensitive issues in the conflict.
In a call to Palestine TV late Friday, President Mahmoud Abbas praised the “courageous stand” of the protesters and said Israel bore full responsibility for the violence. Abbas last week postponed planned parliamentary elections, citing Israeli restrictions in east Jerusalem for the delay.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry had earlier accused the Palestinians of seizing on the threatened evictions, which it described as a “real-estate dispute between private parties,” in order to incite violence.
Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and opposes Israel’s existence, has called for a new intifada.
Protest groups affiliated with Hamas said they would resume demonstrations and the launching of incendiary balloons along the heavily-guarded Gaza frontier. Israeli media said the army sent additional troops to the area in response. Hamas has largely curtailed such actions over the past two years as part of an informal cease-fire that now appears to be fraying.
In an interview with a Hamas-run TV station, the group’s top leader Ismail Haniyeh warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to “play with fire.”
“Neither you, nor your army and police, can win this battle,” he said. “What’s happening in Jerusalem is an intifada that must not stop.”