Israel bars Muslims from entering holy site for 4 hours

International Desk

Published: April 17, 2022, 11:54 PM

Israel bars Muslims from entering holy site for 4 hours

Israeli police stopped Muslim worshippers from entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound for four hours Sunday morning to prevent contact between Muslims and Jews at the site, reports The New York Times.

The move led to brief clashes in nearby side streets, two days after a more intense bout of violence erupted at the holy complex.

At least 18 Palestinians were arrested, some of them for throwing stones at passing buses and for punching and kicking Jews in a nearby alley, according to police. At least 17 Palestinians were injured, five of them by rubber-tipped bullets fired by police, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent, an emergency medical group.

The developments compounded the tensions in Jerusalem, which have risen sharply in recent weeks after an unusually deadly wave of Arab attacks in Israel killed 14 people and after an ensuing Israeli crackdown in the occupied West Bank killed at least 15.

Tensions are expected to rise further in the coming days because of the rare convergence between Ramadan and Passover, which began Friday and is driving more followers of both Islam and Judaism to the Al-Aqsa compound, which is known to Jews as Temple Mount.

The violence Sunday began after police, seeking to prevent contact between Muslims and Jews who were about to enter the compound during regular weekday visiting hours, confined Muslims who were already inside it to small parts of the site.

Earlier, Palestinians had gathered near the entrance used by non-Muslims to enter the site, blocking part of the route that is usually used by Jews to discreetly pray near the location of an ancient Jewish temple considered the holiest place in Judaism. Photographs published by a Palestinian news outlet indicated that stones had been stockpiled elsewhere on the route.

Police struck some Palestinians with batons and denied access to Muslims who were still outside the site.

The Israeli government later denied any restrictions on Muslim access, but reporters for The New York Times witnessed dozens of Muslims being turned away throughout the morning at two major entrances to the complex.

Police then provided Jewish worshippers with an armed escort as they walked around the perimeter of the compound. Tourists and some journalists were also allowed to enter but were restricted to a more limited area.

Clashes later broke out in the side streets around the mosque compound, as police used batons and sound grenades to force back Muslims who were trying to enter. Palestinians shouted, “With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for Al-Aqsa.” A reporter for The New York Times saw several police officers use batons to strike a group of chanting Palestinians who had been standing still outside the mosque complex.

Video circulated by police Sunday showed two other episodes in which a group of Arab men punched and kicked three religious Jews and — in a separate episode — threw stones from a rooftop.

Police also disabled the loudspeakers at the mosque, after Palestinians tried to use the sound system to call people to the site, said Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani, a senior cleric there.

Omar described the police actions as “a siege.” In a statement, police said that their aim was to preserve freedom of worship for all religions and that they had acted only against people who “defile and desecrate the holy places and try to harm innocent civilians and security forces.”

Other Palestinians locked themselves in the largest mosque in the compound, as police patrolled outside. That standoff ended late in the morning, after police began letting some Muslims into the compound and withdrew to allow the Palestinians within the mosque to leave. They emerged cheering, some setting off fireworks and one carrying a green flag associated with Hamas, the Islamist militant group that runs the Gaza Strip.

Tensions are often high at the complex in Jerusalem’s Old City, which is sacred to both Islam and Judaism. But they are particularly tense at the moment because of the rare overlap of Ramadan, Passover and Easter, the first since 1991.

Muslims consider efforts by some Jewish activists to pray furtively at the site to be a provocation because they violate the long-standing Israeli policy of allowing Jews to visit but not pray. They also fear that Jewish prayer there will give momentum to campaigns by small extremist groups to build a new Jewish temple at the site.

Many Muslims have also been angered by recent efforts by extremist Jews to enter the compound with young goats to make a Passover sacrifice. Police said last week that they had arrested some activists who were planning such a sacrifice, and officers intercepted a Jew carrying a goat near the compound Friday, confiscating the animal.

While some rabbis support Jews praying on Temple Mount, one of the chief rabbis of Israel, David Lau, released a statement last week saying it was forbidden for Jews to set foot there, a stance that many chief rabbis have held since 1967, when Israel captured the site from Jordan. Many Jews believe that by entering the site, they risk stepping on some of the most sacred areas of the ancient Jewish temple.

The clashes Sunday followed a more intense incident Friday, when Israeli riot police, firing rubber-tipped bullets and stun grenades, stormed the main mosque in the compound to detain hundreds of Palestinians, many of whom had been throwing stones at them. More than 150 people were injured.

Similar clashes at the mosque last year contributed to the outbreak of an 11-day war between Israel and militants in Gaza led by Hamas.

This year, however, both Israel and Hamas have signaled that they are not seeking an escalation. Khaled Meshaal, a senior Hamas official, said Saturday that both sides had conveyed through Qatari officials that they did not want a new conflagration.

But Islamic Jihad, another militant group in Gaza, said Sunday that recent tensions at the mosque would lead to an “all-out confrontation.”

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