Jerusalem: Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip fired rockets toward Jerusalem on Monday, setting off air raid sirens throughout the city, after hundreds of Palestinians were hurt in clashes with Israeli police at a flashpoint religious site in the contested holy city.
The early-evening attack drastically escalated what aready are heightened tensions throughout the region following weeks of clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem.
Shortly after the sirens sounded, explosions could be heard in Jerusalem. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage. The Israeli Army said there was an initial burst of seven rockets, one was intercepted, and rocket fire was continuing.
Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas’ military wing, said the rocket attack was a response to what he called Israeli crimes and aggression in Jerusalem. This is a message the enemy has to understand well, he said.
He threatened more attacks if Israel again invades the sacred Al-Aqsa compound or carries out evictions of Palestinian families in a neighbourhood of east Jerusalem.
Earlier, Israeli police firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets clashed with stone-throwing Palestinians at the iconic compound.
More than a dozen tear gas canisters and stun grenades landed in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, as police and protesters faced off inside the walled compound that surrounds it, said an Associated Press photographer at the scene. Smoke rose in front of the mosque and the iconic golden-domed shrine on the site, and rocks littered the nearby plaza. Inside one area of the compound, shoes and debris lay scattered over ornate carpets.
In an apparent attempt to avoid further confrontation, Israeli authorities changed the planned route of a march by ultranationalist Jews through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. The marchers were ordered to avoid the area and sent on a different route circumventing the Muslim Quarter on their way to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.
But tensions remained high.
More than 305 Palestinians were hurt, including 228 who went to hospitals and clinics for treatment, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. Seven of the injured were in serious condition. Police said 21 officers were hurt, including three who were hospitalized. Israeli paramedics said seven Israeli civilians were also hurt.
The confrontation was the latest after weeks of mounting tensions between Palestinians and Israeli troops in the Old City of Jerusalem, the emotional centre of their conflict. There have been almost nightly clashes during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, already a time of heightened religious sensitivities.
Most recently, the tensions have been fueled by the planned eviction of dozens of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of east Jerusalem where Israeli settlers have waged a lengthy legal battle to take over properties. Monday was expected to be particularly tense since Israelis mark it as Jerusalem Day to celebrate their capture of east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war.
On Monday, two anti-Arab members of Israel’s parliament, surrounded by an entourage and police, pushed through a line of protesters in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. Several Arab members of parliament were among those trying to stop Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, amid shouting and jostling. Smotrich and Ben Gvir eventually got to the other side of a police barricade and entered a house already inhabited by settlers.
Over the past few days, hundreds of Palestinians and several dozen police officers have been hurt in clashes in and around the Old City, including the sacred compound, which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The compound which has been the trigger for rounds of Israel-Palestinian violence in the past, is Islam’s third-holiest site and considered Judaism’s holiest.
An AP photographer at the scene said that early Monday morning, protesters had barricaded gates to the walled compound with wooden boards and scrap metal. Sometime after 7. a.m., clashes erupted, with those inside throwing stones at police deployed outside. Police entered the compound, firing tear gas, rubber-coated steel pellets and stun grenades.
At some point during the morning about 400 people, both young protesters and older worshippers, were inside the carpeted Al-Aqsa Mosque. Police fired tear gas and stun grenades into the mosque.
Police said protesters hurled stones at officers and onto an adjoining roadway near the Western Wall, where thousands of Israeli Jews had gathered to pray.
The tensions in Jerusalem have threatened to reverberate throughout the region.
Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel’s destruction, has fought three wars with Israel since it seized power in Gaza in 2007. The group possesses a vast arsenal of missiles and rockets capable of striking virtually anywhere in Israel.
In the 1967 war in which Israel captured east Jerusalem, it also took the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It later annexed east Jerusalem and considers the entire city its capital. The Palestinians seek all three areas for a future state, with east Jerusalem as their capital.
The recent round of violence began when Israel blocked off a popular spot where Muslims traditionally gather each night during Ramadan at the end of their daylong fast. Israel later removed the restrictions, but clashes quickly resumed amid tensions over the planned eviction of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah.