JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli police beefed up forces in east Jerusalem and blocked busloads of Muslim pilgrims headed to the Al-Aqsa mosque for the holiest night of Ramadan, threatening to escalate already heightened religious tensions that have unleashed the worst unrest in the holy city in years.
Police defended their actions as security moves, but these were seen as provocations by Muslims who accuse Israel of threatening their freedom of worship. Competing claims in east Jerusalem, home to the city’s most sensitive Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites, lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have triggered major rounds of violence in the past.
Police chief Koby Shabtai said he was deploying more police in Jerusalem following a night of heavy clashes on Friday between Palestinians and Israeli police. Israelis and Palestinians were bracing for more violence in the coming days.
Saturday night is “Laylat al-Qadr” or the “Night of Destiny,” the most sacred in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Islamic authorities estimated 90,000 people were gathered for intense nighttime prayers at Al-Aqsa.
“The right to demonstrate will be respected but public disturbances will be met with force and zero tolerance. I call on everyone to act responsibly and with restraint,” Shabtai said.
Late Saturday, police clashed with Palestinian protesters outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate after being pelted with water bottles. Police fired stun grenades and a water cannon as they moved through the area.
Earlier, police reported clashes in the Old City, near Al-Aqsa, and in the nearby east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where dozens of Palestinians are fighting attempts by Israeli settlers to evict them from their homes.
Police reported several arrests, and Palestinian medics said two protesters were hospitalized after being beaten by police. Police said one officer was wounded after being struck in the face with a rock.
On Sunday evening, Jewish Israelis begin marking “Jerusalem Day,” a national holiday in which Israel celebrates its annexation of east Jerusalem and religious nationalists hold parades and other celebrations in the city. On Monday, an Israeli court is expected to issue a verdict on the planned evictions in Sheikh Jarrah.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza — territories the Palestinians want for their future state — in the 1967 Mideast war.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally, and views the entire city as its capital. The Palestinians view east Jerusalem — which includes major holy sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims — as their capital, and its fate is one of the most sensitive issues in the conflict.
Earlier Saturday, police stopped more than a dozen buses that were filled with Arab citizens on the main highway heading to Jerusalem for Ramadan prayers. Israel’s public broadcaster Kan said police stopped the buses for a security check.
Muslims fast from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, and travelers, upset that they were stopped without explanation on a hot day, exited the buses and blocked the highway in protest. Kan showed footage of the protesters praying, chanting slogans and marching along the highway toward Jerusalem. The road was reopened several hours later.
Ibtasam Maraana, an Arab member of parliament, accused police of a “terrible attack” on freedom of religion. “Police: Remember that they are citizens, not enemies,” she wrote on Twitter.
In Friday night’s violence, Palestinian medics said more than 200 Palestinians were wounded in clashes at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound and elsewhere in Jerusalem. The violence drew condemnations from Israel’s Arab allies and calls for calm from the United States and Europe and the United Nations, and prompted the Arab League to schedule an emergency meeting on Monday. Police said 18 officers were injured.
Protests broke out at the beginning of Ramadan three weeks ago when Israel restricted gatherings at a popular meeting spot outside Jerusalem’s Old City. Israel removed the restrictions, briefly calming the situation, but protests have reignited in recent days over the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinians from their homes in east Jerusalem, which is claimed by both sides in their decades-old conflict.
Other recent developments, including the cancellation of Palestinian elections, deadly violence in which a Palestinian teenager, two Palestinian gunmen and a young Israeli man were killed in separate incidents in the West Bank, and the election to Israel’s parliament of a far-right Jewish nationalist party, also have contributed to the tense atmosphere. One right-wing lawmaker, Itamar Ben-Gvir, briefly set up an outdoor “office” in the heart of a Palestinian neighborhood last week, infuriating local residents.
The Al-Aqsa mosque compound is the third holiest site in Islam. It is also the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount because it was the location of the biblical temples. It has long been a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was the epicenter of the 2000 Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
In recent days, protests have grown over Israel’s threatened eviction in Sheikh Jarrah in east Jerusalem of dozens of Palestinians embroiled in a long legal battle with Israeli settlers trying to acquire property in the neighborhood.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” about both the violence and the threatened evictions, and was in contact with leaders on both sides to try and de-escalate tensions.
“It is critical to avoid steps that exacerbate tensions or take us farther away from peace,” the U.S. State Department said. “This includes evictions in East Jerusalem, settlement activity, home demolitions, and acts of terrorism.”
The High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, expressed “dismay and deep concern” over clashes in and around Al-Aqsa mosque, and said people should be able to worship without “fear or intimidation.”
The European Union also urged calm and expressed concern about the potential evictions. Egypt and Jordan, which made peace with Israel decades ago, condemned its actions, as did the Gulf countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, two of the four Arab countries that signed U.S.-brokered normalization agreements with Israel last year. The UAE expressed “strong condemnation” of Israel’s storming of Al-Aqsa.
In a call to Palestine TV late Friday, President Mahmoud Abbas praised the “courageous stand” of the protesters and said Israel bore full responsibility for the violence. Abbas last week postponed planned parliamentary elections, citing Israeli restrictions in east Jerusalem for the delay.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry had earlier accused the Palestinians of seizing on the threatened evictions, which it described as a “real-estate dispute between private parties,” in order to incite violence.
Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and opposes Israel’s existence, has called for a new intifada.
Protest groups affiliated with Hamas said they would resume demonstrations and the launching of incendiary balloons along the heavily-guarded Gaza frontier. Israeli media said the army sent additional troops to the area in response. Hamas has largely curtailed such actions over the past two years as part of an informal cease-fire that now appears to be fraying.
In an interview with a Hamas-run TV station, the group’s top leader Ismail Haniyeh warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to “play with fire” in Jerusalem.
“Neither you, nor your army and police, can win this battle,” he said.
Akram reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.