Israeli police and Palestinians blame each other for violence that broke out soon after worshippers entered compound for first time in two weeks
Palestinian joy turns to rage as dozens hurt in clashes with police inside Al Aqsa
They had hailed the day as a great Palestinian victory, the day when the Palestinians proved that “Israel does not have a free hand in Jerusalem”.
Hours later the jubilation turned to anger as worshippers at the Al Aqsa mosque faced assault by rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades within the boundaries of what was supposed to be their sanctuary.
Clashes erupted as thousands of Palestinians streamed into the mosque on Thursday afternoon for the first time in two weeks after Israel met their demands to remove new security measures at the site.
Violence broke out when Israeli soldiers forced their way into the courtyard of the mosque and climbed up the building to remove a Palestinian flag. The Israeli troops fired stun grenades and rubber bullets, wounding 56 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Red Cross.
“The disturbances were initiated by Palestinians,” according to police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
The Palestinians said the violence began when police began beating up sweet sellers who were trying to bring sweets into the compound and angry youths responded by throwing stones.
“Soldiers kicked us, beat us and took the sweets from us,” said Nasser Al Kurd, one of the merchants.
A police statement, however, said the stone-throwing began as soon as worshippers entered the complex and that some stones landed in the adjacent plaza of the Western Wall, without causing injuries.
Police dispersed the stonethrowers using “means”, the statement said. One policeman was wounded when he was hit on the head by a stone.
“The police are deployed with reinforcements inside the Temple Mount, around its gates and in the Old City. Police will respond with a heavy hand to every attempt to disrupt order and harm police and citizens,” the statement said.
Whoever started the violence, it showed that confrontation over Al Aqsa, the third-holiest site in Islam, which is also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, is far from over, and raised the prospect of escalation around Friday prayers.
Palestine Liberation Organisation executive committee member Wasel Abu Yusuf said the Israeli forces were behaving in a “very dangerous” fashion.
“Tomorrow is Friday prayers and today the leadership called on people to come and pray at Al Aqsa,” he said. “The results tomorrow depend on the army, police and security bodies. If the suppression and closure of gates continues, it will create a battle in Jerusalem. This type of behaviour is a spark and makes religious war. This behaviour brings us back to zero point.”
Ealier on Thursday, Palestinian leaders had proclaimed a great victory after Israel gave in to diplomatic and popular pressure and removed all security measures it had installed at entrances to Al Aqsa Mosque compound.
Through the official Palestinian news agency Wafa, president Mahmoud Abbas declared that afternoon prayers would be held at the mosque after it was confirmed matters had returned to their pre-June 14 status. That was the date when Israel installed metal detectors and other equipment after a fatal attack outside the compound by three Arab gunmen.
Mr Abbas “praised the steadfastness of Jerusalem Muslims and Christians in the face of the Israeli measures”.
Mr Abu Yusuf had described the lifting of the Israeli measures as “a great achievement for the defenders of Al Aqsa and for the Palestinian people against all the efforts to solidify the occupation” and called on Palestinians to return to the mosque for Friday prayers.
Israel said the security measures were necessary to prevent further attacks, but to Palestinians they were a step towards Israel taking control of Al Aqsa.
Four Palestinians were killed in clashes that erupted over the dispute.
Palestinians refused to enter the mosque unless Israel reversed its security measures. Instead, they held a sit-in at the Lion’s Gate entry point into Jerusalem’s Old City and prayed in the streets there.
At the same time, protests in solidarity with the Palestinians were held across the Muslim world and the dispute strained Israeli relations with Jordan, which is custodian of the mosque according to the 1994 peace treaty between the two countries. Turkey also sharply denounced the measures at the Haram Al Sharif compound.
On Monday, Israel removed the metal detectors and cameras, but Palestinian leaders said this was insufficient and that all equipment, including camera stands and railings, had to be removed.
They called for a “day of rage” on Friday to protest against what they saw as continued Israeli infringement on the mosque.
But after Israel took down the rest of the equipment, Islamic leaders declared they were satisfied and called on worshippers to return to the mosque.
A statement by Abdul-Azeem Salhab, head of the religious trust that administers the site, Ekrema Sabri, head of the higher Islamic council in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, said: “The occupation has removed the stands for cameras, bridges for cameras and the railings on the ground. This is a great and honourable victory for the sons of the Palestinian people, with the occupation going back on its evil measures against Al Aqsa Mosque in the face of the steadfastness of our people.”
Palestinian political factions also issued statements supporting the announcement, which may help to quell unrest.
Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Authority minister who is now vice president of the West Bank’s Bir Zeit University, said the episode showed that “Israel has failed to digest East Jerusalem and make it part of united Jerusalem. This has revealed the big lie of ‘united Jerusalem’”.
The UAE strongly condemned the measures imposed by the Israelis that culminated in such violence.
During an emergency meeting of ministers from the Arab League of Nations held at the University of Cairo, the UAE labelled them a dangerous precedent of aggression against holy sites and the right to freedom of religious worship, and warned against the repercussions of such action.
This came in a speech by Dr Sultan bin Ahmed Al Jaber, Minister of State, who led the UAE delegation.
“This upturn on the ground intends to change the historical and legal situation in Al Aqsa Mosque and the holy sanctuaries, in clear violation of its legal and international responsibilities as the occupying power.”
Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoner Club and a leader in the Fatah movement, issued an ominous warning: “Tomorrow will be a dangerous and sensitive day. If the police and border police take a decision to act with restraint and allow this day to pass things will go peacefully.
“But if the Israelis continue to try to show who is sovereign in Jerusalem, it will be dangerous.
“If the Palestinian joy turns into a test for the state of Israel there will be an explosion. It depends on the occupier,” he said.