Israeli police and thousands of Palestinian worshippers clashed at a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site on Sunday as overlapping Jewish and Muslim holidays led to tensions there.
Palestinian medics said at least 14 people were wounded, one seriously, in the skirmishes with police at the site, which Muslims refer to as the Al-Aqsa mosque compound and Jews refer to as the Temple Mount. Police said at least four officers were wounded. Witnesses said at least two people were arrested.
Tens of thousands of Muslims had flocked to the site in Jerusalem’s eastern Old City early Sunday for holiday prayers, police said. Sunday is also the Tisha B’Av, the Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of the two Biblical temples which stood at the site in antiquity.
It is the holiest site for Jews and the third holiest for Muslims, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. It has long been a flashpoint at the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Large numbers of Palestinians had gathered at the gates of the compound early Sunday after rumors circulated that police would allow Jewish visitors to enter the site. The protesters chanted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) and threw stones at police, who then charged into the compound while firing stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets.
Israeli police had initially barred entry to Jewish visitors, but reversed their decision after the clashes broke out and allowed them to enter. Several dozen entered the site under close police escort and Muslim worshippers began throwing chairs and other objects at the group. The Jewish visitors left the compound shortly thereafter.
Jews are barred from praying at the compound under a longstanding arrangement between Israel and Muslim authorities. Jewish tradition also maintains that Jews should avoid entering the holy site.
But in recent years Israeli religious nationalists have stepped up visits to the site to challenge the arrangement. Jewish extremists have called for destroying the mosque and rebuilding the Biblical temple.
The Palestinians view such visits as provocations, and have long feared that Israel intends to take over the site or partition it. The Israeli government has repeatedly said it has no intention of changing the status quo.
In a separate incident on Sunday, Israeli troops killed a Palestinian gunman after he opened fire on them from across the perimeter fence around the Gaza Strip. According to the Israeli military, an “armed terrorist” approached the frontier early Sunday and opened fire toward troops on the other side, who responded by shooting at the attacker. The army said a tank also targeted a nearby military post operated by the Islamic militant group Hamas.
The Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza identified the deceased as 26-year-old Marwan Nasser. It was not clear if he was a member of an armed group, and no one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
On Saturday, Israeli troops killed four Palestinian militants who the army said had tried to carry out a cross-border attack. Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, said the attack was an “individual act” carried out by youths frustrated at the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza and was not planned by the group.
On Thursday, the Israeli army found the body of an off-duty Israeli soldier “with stabbing marks” in the occupied West bank, near the Jewish settlement of Migdal Oz. Two suspected Palestinians were later arrested, Israeli domestic intelligence agency said Saturday.
Tension has been rising ever since regular protests and clashes erupted along the border of the blockaded Gaza Strip in March 2018. At least 302 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in Gaza or the border area since March 2018, the majority during the demonstrations and clashes.