Mahmoud Illean/AP
Palestinians run away from tear gas during clashes with Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, May 10, 2021. More than 300 Palestinians, 21 Israeli police officers, and seven Israeli citizens have been injured.

Clashes in Jerusalem: Is city on the brink of wider conflict?

Hundreds – mostly Palestinians – have been injured as tensions over longstanding property issues are boiling over into violent confrontations with police at the sacred compound that is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Judaism’s holiest site.

Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip fired rockets toward Jerusalem on Monday, setting off air raid sirens throughout the city, after hundreds of Palestinians were hurt in clashes with Israeli police at a flashpoint religious site in the contested holy city.

The early-evening attack drastically escalated what already are heightened tensions throughout the region following weeks of clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem.

Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas’ military wing, said the rocket attack was a response to what he called Israeli “crimes and aggression” in Jerusalem. “This is a message the enemy has to understand well,” he said.

He threatened more attacks if Israel again invades the sacred Al-Aqsa compound or carries out evictions of Palestinian families in a neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

Earlier Monday, Israeli police firing tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets clashed with stone-throwing Palestinians at a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site on Monday, the latest in a series of confrontations that threatened to push the contested city toward wider conflict.

More than a dozen tear gas canisters and stun grenades landed in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, as police and protesters faced off inside the walled compound that surrounds it, said an Associated Press photographer at the scene. Smoke rose in front of the mosque and the iconic golden-domed shrine on the site, and rocks littered the nearby plaza. Inside one area of the compound, shoes and debris lay scattered over ornate carpets.

More than 305 Palestinians were hurt, including 228 who went to hospitals and clinics for treatment, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. Seven of the injured were in serious condition. Police said 21 officers were hurt, including three who were hospitalized. Israeli paramedics said seven Israeli civilians were also hurt.

The confrontation was the latest after weeks of mounting tensions between Palestinians and Israeli troops in the Old City of Jerusalem, the emotional center of their conflict. As the Monitor reported last week, conflicts in East Jerusalem are arising amid “a long-running and contentious campaign to change the area’s demographics” to the disadvantage of Palestinians. There have been almost nightly clashes during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, already a time of heightened religious sensitivities.

After Monday’s most recent clashes, Israeli police announced they had changed the route of a contentious march by Jewish ultranationalists in Jerusalem, in an apparent attempt to avoid confrontations with Palestinian protesters.

The original route had planned to go through Damascus Gate and into the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and on to the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray.

Instead, the route has been changed to reach the Western Wall, in the Jewish Quarter, in a more roundabout way.

The parade marks Jerusalem Day, when Israel celebrates the capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. The annual event is considered provocative by many because ultranationalist Jews march through Palestinian areas chanting slogans and waving Israeli flags.

As of Monday, hundreds of marchers, many of them from Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, were lined up for the parade. Many of them groaned with disappointment when the change was announced.

Sheikh Jarrah evictions

Additionally, tensions have been fueled by the planned eviction of dozens of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem where Israeli settlers have waged a lengthy legal battle to take over properties. 

On Monday, two anti-Arab members of Israel’s parliament, surrounded by an entourage and police, pushed through a line of protesters in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Several Arab members of parliament were among those trying to stop Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, amid shouting and jostling. At one point during the scrum, the protesters pounded on the sides of a dumpster, and one man yelled at Smotrich in Arabic, “Get out of here, you dog!”

Mr. Smotrich and Mr. Ben Gvir eventually got to the other side of a police barricade and entered a house already inhabited by settlers.

Al-Aqsa: site of ongoing conflicts

Over the past few days, hundreds of Palestinians and several dozen police officers have been hurt in clashes in and around the Old City, including the sacred compound that hosts the Al-Aqsa Mosque, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. 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.

The AP photographer at the scene said that early Monday morning, protesters had barricaded gates to the walled compound with wooden boards and scrap metal. Sometime after 7. a.m., clashes erupted, with those inside throwing stones at police deployed outside. Police entered the compound, firing tear gas, rubber-coated steel pellets, and stun grenades.

At some point during the morning about 400 people, both young protesters and older worshippers, were inside the carpeted Al-Aqsa Mosque. Police fired tear gas and stun grenades into the mosque.

Police said protesters hurled stones at officers and onto an adjoining roadway near the Western Wall, where thousands of Israeli Jews had gathered to pray.

After several days of Jerusalem confrontations, Israel has come under growing international criticism for its heavy-handed actions at the site, particularly during Ramadan.

The United Nations Security Council scheduled closed consultations on the situation Monday.

Late Sunday, the United States National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke to his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat. A White House statement said that Mr. Sullivan called on Israel to “pursue appropriate measures to ensure calm” and expressed the U.S.’s “serious concerns” about the ongoing violence and planned evictions.

Axios reported that, according to Israeli officials’ description of the conversation between Mr. Ben Shabbat and Mr. Sullivan, Mr. Ben Shabbat told Mr. Sullivan that Israel’s position is that the Biden administration and the international community should stay out of the crisis in Jerusalem, and avoid pressing Israel on the matter.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed back against criticism Monday, saying Israel is determined to ensure the rights of worship for all and that this “requires from time to time stand up and stand strong as Israeli police and our security forces are doing now.”

Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for Mr. Netanyahu, claimed in a tweet that “extremist Palestinians planned well in advance to carry out riots” at the holy site, sharing photos of mounds of stones and wooden barricades inside the compound.

Ayman Odeh, a leading Arab politician in Israel, blamed the violence on Israel’s discriminatory policies toward the Palestinians and said it had provoked the violence. “Wherever you find occupation, you will find resistance,” he said at a news conference in Sheikh Jarrah.

In other violence, Palestinian protesters hurled rocks at an Israeli vehicle driving just outside the Old City walls. The driver later told public broadcaster Kan that his windows were smashed by stones and pepper spray shot into the car. CCTV footage released by the police showed a crowd surrounding the car and pelting it with rocks when it swerved off the road and into a stone barrier and a bystander.

Police said two passengers were injured.

Jerusalem Day

The day began with police announcing that Jews would be barred from visiting the holy site on Jerusalem Day, which is marked with a flag-waving parade through the Old City that is widely perceived by Palestinians as a provocative display in the contested city.

In the 1967 war in which Israel captured East Jerusalem, it also took the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It later annexed East Jerusalem and considers the entire city its capital. The Palestinians seek all three areas for a future state, with East Jerusalem as their capital.

The recent round of violence began when Israel blocked off a popular spot where Muslims traditionally gather each night during Ramadan at the end of their daylong fast. Israel later removed the restrictions, but clashes quickly resumed amid tensions over the planned eviction of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah.

Israel’s Supreme Court postponed a key ruling Monday that could have forced dozens of Palestinians from their homes, citing the “circumstances.”

The tensions in Jerusalem have threatened to reverberate throughout the region.

Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have fired several barrages of rockets into Israel, and protesters allied with the ruling Hamas militant group have launched dozens of incendiary balloons into Israel, setting off fires across the southern part of the country.

“The occupier plays with fire, and tampering with Jerusalem is very dangerous,” Saleh Arouri, a top Hamas official, told the militant group’s Al-Aqsa TV station.

In response, COGAT, the Israeli Defense Ministry organ responsible for crossings with the Gaza Strip, announced Monday that it was closing the Erez crossing to all but humanitarian and exceptional cases until further notice.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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