Unrest erupts at Jerusalem site ahead of nationalist march
JERUSALEM — Over 2,500 Jews visited Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site on Sunday ahead of a nationalist parade through the Old City, prompting Palestinians barricaded inside the Al Aqsa Mosque to throw rocks and fireworks at the visitors and nearby Israeli police.
Thousands of police were deployed throughout the city for Sunday’s march, in which flag-waving Israeli nationalists planned to walk through the heart of the Old City’s main Palestinian thoroughfare.
Israel says the march is meant to celebrate its capture of east Jerusalem, including the Old City, in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel has annexed east Jerusalem in a move that isn’t internationally recognized and claims all of the city as its capital.
But Palestinians, who seek east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, see the march as a provocation. Last year, the parade helped trigger an 11-day war between Israel and Gaza militants.
Ahead of the march, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that “flying the flag of Israel in the capital of Israel is an obvious thing” and that Israel had made this clear “from the outset.” At the same time, he asked participants to celebrate in a “responsible and respectful manner.”
Thousands of people normally take part in the march through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, including some who shout out nationalistic or racist slogans toward the Palestinians, before making their way to the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter.
Last year, after weeks of Israeli-Palestinian unrest in Jerusalem, authorities changed the route of the march at the last minute to avoid the Muslim Quarter. But it was too late by then, and Hamas militants in Gaza fired a barrage of rockets toward Jerusalem as the procession was getting underway. That set off 11 days of heavy fighting.
Gaza’s Hamas rulers praised what they called “the great heroism” shown by Palestinians at Al Aqsa earlier Sunday. “The Islamic Palestinian Arab identity of the Al Aqsa Mosque will be protected by our people and their valiant resistance with all their might,” said Hazem Qassem, a spokesman for the group.
The group, however, may be wary of getting involved in another round of fighting. Gaza was hard hit in last year’s war, and the territory is still struggling to repair the damage. In addition, some 12,000 Gazan laborers are now permitted to work inside Israel as part of efforts to maintain calm between the enemies. Renewed fighting could risk losing those jobs, which have given a small boost to Gaza’s devastated economy.
Early on Sunday, some 1,800 Jews visited the contested hilltop compound where the Al Aqsa Mosque is situated, according to Israeli police.
Al Aqsa is the third-holiest site in Islam and serves as a powerful symbol for the Palestinians. The compound also is the holiest site for Jews, who call it the Temple Mount and revere it as the home of the biblical Temples. The competing claims to the site lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have triggered numerous rounds of violence.
Dozens of Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the mosque and began throwing objects and fireworks when the Jewish visitors began to arrive.
Among the visitors was Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of a small ultranationalist opposition party and a follower of the late racist rabbi, Meir Kahane, who entered with dozens of supporters under heavy police guard.
Palestinians shouted “God is great” as Ben-Gvir, accompanied by Israeli police, shouted “the Jewish people live.” Police said they locked the gates of the mosque and said they made 18 arrests. There were no reports of injuries.
Without explanation, Israeli police took the rare step of barring Palestinian journalists, including an Associated Press photographer, from entering the compound.
Police also said dozens of visitors in one of the Jewish groups “violated visitation rules.” It said the group was removed and some people were detained.
The police statement gave no further details. But under longstanding arrangements known as the “status quo,” Jewish visitors to the compound are not allowed to pray. In recent years, however, the number of Jewish visitors has grown significantly, including some who have been spotted quietly praying.
Such scenes have sparked Palestinian fears that Israel is plotting to take over or divide the area. Israel denies such claims, saying it remains committed to the status quo.
Later, police said that Palestinians hurled rocks and bottles at security forces near Damascus Gate, at the entrance of the Muslim Quarter. Police were seen beating some Palestinians. Police said three people were arrested, and one Israeli bodyguard was lightly injured.
An additional 800 Jews visited the compound on Sunday afternoon without incident, police said.
Israel’s national police chief, Kobi Shabtai, said his forces were prepared for “every scenario” and had taken “immediate and professional” action when needed.
“We will not allow any inciter or rioter to sabotage today’s events and to disrupt law and order,” he said. By midday, the visits had temporarily halted, and the situation had quieted.
Jordan condemned Ben-Gvir’s visit to the site and warned that the “provocative and escalating march” could make things deteriorate further. Jordan controlled east Jerusalem until Israel captured it in 1967 and it remains the custodian over Muslim holy sites.
Sunday’s march comes at a time of heightened tensions. Israeli police have repeatedly confronted stone-throwing Palestinian demonstrators in the disputed compound in recent months, often firing rubber bullets and stun grenades.
At the same time, some 19 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian attackers in Israel and the occupied West Bank in recent weeks, while over 35 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli military operations in the occupied West Bank. Many of those killed were Palestinian militants, but several civilians were also among the dead, including Shireen Abu Akleh, a well-known correspondent for the Al Jazeera satellite channel.
Jerusalem police were criticized internationally for beating mourners at Abu Akleh’s funeral two weeks ago.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza, in the 1967 Mideast war. The internationally backed Palestinian Authority, which administers areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, seeks all three areas for an independent state.