Jerusalem – Ma'an – At least 40 people were injured and five arrested as fierce clashes broke out in and near the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem's Old City on Sunday.
Dozens of Palestinians were hurt by police batons and high-velocity tear-gas canisters, medics said, including several who sustained serious eye and head injuries.
Israeli forces said 17 officers were also wounded during the clashes, most from rocks.
Reports conflicted on how many Palestinians were detained during the incident. Palestinian sources said five were seized, while Israeli sources put the number at nine.
According to witnesses, clashes broke out after a group of about 150 Israeli settlers entered the Al-Aqsa compound on Sunday morning, reportedly under the guard of local authorities who also escorted the group away from the area when worshipers began to protest.
On Thursday, the Al-Aqsa Foundation had warned that Israeli authorities were planning to permit settlers entrance to the area. Officials in East Jerusalem predicted that the break-in would occur on Sunday under the pretext of marking Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement.
On Sunday morning, the French news agency AFP reported that "a group of some 200 mostly religious and right-wing Jews had gathered in the early morning at the gate through which police allow tourists access."
But there were also conflicting reports about the group spotted prior to the clashes. An Israeli police spokesman, who initially said the visitors belonged to the Jewish group, later insisted it was actually a group of French nationals that toured the compound.
In any event, Palestinians were seen throwing stones and other objects at police sent to the mosque area, reportedly hurting several. Using police batons and stun grenades, Israeli forces injured dozens during attempts to forcefully disperse the gathering crowds.
Clashes later erupted near Majlis Gate, one of the main entrances to the mosque, after police prevented worshippers from entering the area, according to witnesses. More clashes followed noon prayers near the Lions' Gate entrance to Al-Aqsa.
Israeli police closed all entrances in what they said was an effort to contain the fighting. However at one point Palestinians aged over 50 were briefly allowed to return, but the main gates toward the compound were again sealed later in the afternoon.
Hundreds of Jerusalemites and Palestinians living inside Israel arrived at the mosque compound when word of the clashes spread. They gathered outside several sealed entrances, chanting and denouncing the occupation and what they called assaults against holy places and residents in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Israeli police prevented Islamic notables such as Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, chief of the Islamic Supreme Committee and grand mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine, from entering the Al-Aqsa area.
Also denied access was Hatim Abdul Qader, former PA minister of Jerusalem affairs and current Fatah representative on Jerusalem. Israeli police produced an order preventing Abdul-Qadir from accessing Al-Aqsa until further notice, under the pretext that he urged demonstrators to gather at the compound.
Al-Aqsa is located at the Haram Ash-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, in occupied East Jerusalem. Israel's army handed nominal control of the area to the Waqf in 1967, but the mosque has periodically come under attack by extremists since then. The most notable assault was in 1969, when a Christian Zionist from Australia set it ablaze in an attempt to herald the second coming of Christ.
Believed by Muslims to be the location where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven during his Night Journey, Al-Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam. The compound, with the golden Dome of the Rock, is also a focal point of Palestinian national pride.
It also sits atop what Israelis refer to as the Temple Mount, where the Jewish First and Second Temples were thought to have stood. The location is especially sensitive because some religious extremists seek the mosque's demolition in order to construct a "Third Temple."