Video from the plaza surrounding the al-Aqsa Mosque showed officers in riot gear deploying stun grenades against a crowd of Palestinians throwing bottles and rocks. The fighting erupted after evening prayers on the final Friday of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. More than 70,000 worshipers had gathered during the day at the mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites and the location of frequent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police who control access to the compound.
A police spokesman said officers had entered the complex after some in the crowd began throwing objects. Protesters blamed police for escalating the situation, according to media reports and social media.
“The Israeli occupation will pay the price for its aggression and appalling infringement of the Muslims’ right to perform prayers at the mosque,” Hamas, the governing militant group in the Gaza Strip, said in a statement Saturday.
The group called for protests in Gaza on Saturday, and police said they also expected gatherings in Israel and the West Bank. Officials said the potential for further clashes was high in coming days. Sunday will mark another Muslim holy day expected to draw large crowds of worshipers and the beginning of Jerusalem Day, which marks the takeover of the Old City by Israel in 1967.
The clashes followed weeks of building tensions in the city.
Police and protesters faced off over several nights at the beginning of Ramadan when young Palestinians gathered at the Old City’s Damascus Gate. Militants fired dozens of rockets from Gaza in solidarity, which fell without causing injury. Those clashes eased when police removed restrictive fencing from the site at the behest of city leaders.
But anger has swelled in recent days over a long-running dispute in the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where dozens of Palestinians in six households face eviction in favor of Jewish Israelis who claim several properties as rightfully theirs. While the legal battle goes back more than a decade, the Israeli Supreme Court is expected to rule definitively on the matter Monday, and the standoff has galvanized both sides.
Israel characterizes the dispute as a technical property fight, while Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups say it is part of a systematic and growing effort to create Jewish enclaves within the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. It is just one of several eviction fights being waged around the city.
Dozens of Palestinian activists have been gathering daily in Sheikh Jarrah over the past week, occasionally clashing with police and Jewish counterprotesters.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, a parliament member and the provocative leader of a far-right party with roots in the banned Kahanist movement, set up a temporary “office” under an awning near the standoff. He removed it after pleas from security officials and reportedly from the office of his ally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Following Friday’s clashes, U.S. officials called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to “de-escalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence.”
“We are also deeply concerned about the potential eviction of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods of Jerusalem, many of whom have lived in their homes for generations,” the State Department said in a statement Friday. “As we have consistently said, it is critical to avoid steps that exacerbate tensions or take us farther away from peace. This includes evictions in East Jerusalem, settlement activity, home demolitions, and acts of terrorism.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel was to blame for the flaring tensions in Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital.
“We hold the Israeli occupation government absolutely responsible for what is happening in the holy city in terms of dangerous developments, vicious aggression and what may result from it,” Abbas said in a televised address Saturday.
Palestinian analysts said anger in Arab neighborhoods was heightened by Abbas’s own decision last week to cancel parliamentary and presidential elections — the first in 15 years — that had been planed for the spring. Abbas blamed Israel for refusing to facilitate voting by eligible Palestinians in East Jerusalem. But polling showed his faction faring poorly against several rivals.