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Israeli police storm al-Aqsa mosque ahead of Jerusalem Day march

Israeli police have stormed the sacred Jerusalem compound that holds the Dome of the Rock amid mounting international concern over the worsening violence in the city.

Following the most serious clashes in the city since 2017, the Palestine Red Crescent reported 305 people had been injured after officers in riot gear clashed with Palestinian demonstrators in East Jerusalem.

The mounting toll from the violence came as Israel’s police commissioner, Kobi Shabtai, intervened at the last moment, following appeals from the Israeli domestic security agency the Shin Bet and the Israeli military to call off a controversial annual march by Israeli nationalists through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City amid fears it could provoke a further escalation.

After Shabtai’s announcement, the approach to the Damascus Gate into the Muslim Quarter was blocked by two large trucks.

Anger had been mounting for weeks among Palestinians ahead of a now-delayed Israeli court ruling on whether authorities were able to evict dozens of Palestinians from the Old City’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and give their homes to Jewish settlers.

Hundreds of Palestinians and several dozen police officers have been hurt in recent days in clashes in and around the Old City, including the sacred compound, which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary – or Haram al-Sharif.

The compound, which has been the trigger for rounds of Israel-Palestinian violence in the past, is Islam’s third-holiest site and considered Judaism’s holiest.

Seven of the injured from Monday’s clashes were in serious condition with local media reporting that a seven-month-old Israeli had been injured by stones thrown at her family’s car.

Monday morning’s early-morning incursion by Israeli police firing teargas and stun grenades into the Haram al-Sharif compound, site of the al-Aqsa mosque, had raised tensions significantly given the huge historical sensitivity over the site, not least during the Holy month of Ramadan.

The latest violence occurred as the UN security council scheduled closed consultations on the situation in Jerusalem on Monday. Diplomats said the meeting was requested by Tunisia, the Arab representative on the council.

The decision to cancel the part of the annual Jerusalem “flag march” that enters the Muslim Quarter Old City followed concerns from senior Israeli security officials that it could worsen the already dangerous situation.

Palestinian residents of the Old City have long complained that the flag march, to mark Israel’s capture of the Jerusalem and its Jewish holy sites in 1967 during the Six Day war, is deliberately provocative.

Confrontations continued until after dawn, when police moved in to an Old City compound housing the al-Aqsa mosque, and fired stun grenades at worshippers, who threw stones. Footage from the scene showed crowds of people running in front of the mosque through clouds of smoke.

As fears mounted of Jerusalem descending further into chaos, police published dramatic CCTV video from a road near the Old City of a white car being pelted by Palestinians with stones, before the driver reverses and rams into one of them. The downed man gets up and limps away while an armed Israeli police officer runs in to protect the driver, believed to be Israeli, who faces more rock-throwing.

The late-night skirmishes raised fears about further clashes on Monday during the Jerusalem Day celebrations, which mark the anniversary of when Israeli troops captured the city in 1967.

Israeli police gave the go-ahead for the parade despite days of unrest.

Addressing a special cabinet meeting before Jerusalem Day, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel “will not allow any extremists to destabilise the calm in Jerusalem. We will enforce law and order decisively and responsibly”.

“We will continue to maintain freedom of worship for all faiths, but we will not allow violent disturbances,” he said, adding: “We emphatically reject the pressures not to build in Jerusalem.”

The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, expressed “serious concerns” about the violent clashes in Jerusalem in a phone call on Sunday with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, the White House said.

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. One rocket was intercepted, while two others exploded inside Gaza, it added. There were no reports of damage or injuries.

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.

On Sunday, Jordan, which has custodianship of Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem, called Israel’s actions against worshippers at al-Aqsa “barbaric”.

On Saturday night, 120 people were injured, including a one-year-old child, and 14 were taken to hospital. The violence came a day after more than 200 Palestinians were wounded around the al-Aqsa mosque.

Israeli police said 20 officers had been injured in recent days.

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 an attempt by the settlers, supported by the government, to seize our homes with force,” Kurd told the Guardian. “Enough is enough.”

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 Muslim 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.

Palestinians have held nightly protests in Sheikh Jarrah. A reporter for Israeli public TV tweeted footage of a Jewish driver whose car was attacked with stones and windows shattered at the entrance to Sheikh Jarrah on Saturday.

The Islamist movement 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.”


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