Violence at Jerusalem mosque prompts fears of wider fighting

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Israeli police stormed into the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City early on Wednesday, firing stun grenades at Palestinian youths who hurled stones and firecrackers at them in a burst of violence during a sensitive holiday season.

Gaza militants responded with rocket fire on southern Israel, prompting an Israeli airstrike.

The fighting, coming as Muslims mark the holiday month of Ramadan and Jews prepare to begin the Passover festival on Wednesday evening, drew Palestinian condemnations and raised fears of a wider conflagration.

Similar clashes two years ago erupted into an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas. The Israeli military said one soldier was shot in a separate incident in the occupied West Bank.

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Israeli police escort Jewish visitors marking the holiday of Passover to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound (Mahmoud Illean/ AP)

The spot, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, is also the holiest site in Judaism, who revere it as the location of the biblical Jewish temples. The conflicting claims fuel constant tensions that have spilled over to violence numerous times in the past.

The official Palestinian news agency Wafa said that dozens of worshippers who were spending the night praying were injured in the police raid.

Israeli police said they moved in after “several law-breaking youths and masked agitators” brought fireworks, sticks and stones and barricaded themselves into the mosque. Police said the youths chanted violent slogans and locked the front doors.

“After many and prolonged attempts to get them out by talking to no avail, police forces were forced to enter the compound in order to get them out,” police said.

Video released by police showed the repeated explosions of fireworks inside the mosque. One amateur video taken by Palestinians showed police scuffling with people and beating them with clubs and rifle butts as a woman’s voice could be heard shouting: “Oh God. Oh God.”

Outside the gate, police dispersed groups of youths with stun grenades and rubber bullets.

Police said one officer was injured in the leg, while dozens of people were arrested.

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Israeli police detain a Palestinian worshipper at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound  (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

The Israeli military said a total of five rockets were fired, and all were intercepted. Hours later, Israel responded with an airstrike in Gaza. There were no immediate details on the target.

Tensions have been steadily rising since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government took office late last year.

The government is dominated by religious and ultranationalist hard-liners, and the overlap of the Jewish and Muslim holidays – when tens of thousands of worshippers make their way to contested Jerusalem — has raised fears of violence.

The police force is overseen by Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist with a history of violent rhetoric against the Palestinians.

In Gaza, Hamas called for large protests and people started gathering in the streets, with calls to head for the heavily guarded Gaza-Israel frontier for more violent demonstrations.

The Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad also called for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Israel to go and gather around Al-Aqsa Mosque and confront Israeli forces.

In the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian leadership condemned the attack on the worshippers. The spokesman of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, warned Israel that such a move “exceeds all red lines and will lead to a large explosion”.

The government of Jordan, which serves as the custodian of the mosque, condemned the Israeli raid “in the strongest terms”.

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Israeli police arrest a Palestinian woman at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

It said residents of Beit Umar, near the volatile city of Hebron, burned tires, hurled rocks and explosives at soldiers. It said one soldier was shot by armed suspects, who managed to flee.

Israeli-Palestinian violence has surged over the last year, as the Israeli military has carried out near-nightly raids on Palestinian cities, towns and villages and as Palestinians have staged numerous attacks against Israelis.

At least 88 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire this year, according to an Associated Press tally. Palestinian attacks against Israelis have killed 15 people in the same period.

Israel says most of the Palestinians killed were militants. But stone-throwing youths and bystanders uninvolved in violence were also among the dead. All but one of the Israeli dead were civilians.

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