Occupied East Jerusalem – Palestinians described the flash raid launched by Israeli security forces on Monday on the Al-Aqsa compound that wounded hundreds of people, as fears intensified violence could escalate during a march by Israeli nationalists.
Security forces stormed Islam’s third holiest site in Jerusalem as many worshippers prayed in the mosque, firing stun grenades, tear gas and rubber-coated metal rounds as snipers took up positions on rooftops.
It was the most violent crackdown yet on Palestinians marking the holy month of Ramadan while also protesting against land grabs by illegal Israeli settlers.
“The Israeli police rushed through all the gates of Al-Aqsa, maybe 1,000 of them, and they started firing rubber bullets and tear gas,” said Ibrahim, 17, who was inside the mosque praying when the raid began at 8am local time (6:00 GMT).
“One policeman threw a stun grenade inside the mosque and the carpet caught fire. I barely escaped.”
Ibrahim said he sought shelter in the compound’s health clinic, but Israeli police forced their way in.
“They sprayed pepper gas and lobbed stun grenades – even though people were getting treated there. People were on the floor suffocating.”
The Palestinian Red Crescent said more than 300 Palestinians were hurt. About 20 Israeli officers were injured.
Al-Aqsa official Raed D’ana said he was beaten by Israeli security forces. “They started kicking me and pushed me to the ground even after I showed them my work ID. They then ejected me outside Al-Aqsa,” he told Al Jazeera.
Nour Mtour, a Palestinian woman who spent the night inside the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, witnessed the beginning of the crackdown.
“I tried to help a wounded man who got hit by a bullet in his head, but I couldn’t reach him as police fired a tear gas canister at me,” she said. “Snipers went on the roof of the gate at the mosque compound and began to shoot rubber bullets at everyone – women, men, everyone.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the actions of the security forces, praising their “just struggle”. He also commended the “steadfastness that the Israeli police and our security forces are currently displaying”.
‘Duty of the Islamic world’
Muhammad Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera the international community must intervene to stop the Israeli aggression.
“What is going on is a crime perpetrated by the Israeli occupation against the right to hold prayers [and] a crime against the people of Jerusalem. But their design will fail,” Hussein said. “The duty of the Islamic world is to rise to guard Al-Aqsa mosque.”
The Israeli raid came ahead of a nationalist march by an estimated 30,000 Israelis later on Monday, as they parade through Jerusalem to mark the occupation of the city’s east during the 1967 Middle East war.
The rally has stoked concerns that violence could spin out of control after weeks of tensions and arrests during Ramadan in East Jerusalem. Anger has grown among the Palestinians after an Israeli court planned to rule on the forcible expulsion of families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood so Israeli settlers could take over their homes.
Mustafa Barghouti, leader of the Palestinian National Initiative party, was at Al-Aqsa when the Israeli forces began their raid. He said Palestinian first responders were attacked and repeatedly beaten as soon as they tried to help the wounded.
Dr Hazem Rweidy tried to enter Al-Aqsa to provide first aid to the injured, but he was prevented from doing so by Israeli troops.
“As a doctor, I wanted to help after I heard the distress calls that there were a lot of injuries and they can’t move them out. I tried from all the gates, but they didn’t let me in,” Rweidy said.
Barghouti expressed shock that worshippers were targeted inside one of Islam’s holiest places.
“They attacked the mosque while people were praying,” he told Al Jazeera, incredulous. “This is the racist behaviour of an Israeli army that is practising apartheid and discrimination.”
Dareen Jubeh contributed to this report