Israel braced for more protests on Saturday after violence at East Jerusalem’s flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound wounded more than 200 people as the international community called for calm after days of escalating tensions.
Israeli police fired rubber-coated metal bullets and stun grenades towards rock-hurling Palestinians at Al-Aqsa as anger grows over the potential eviction of Palestinians from homes on land claimed by Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem.
At least 205 Palestinians and 17 officers were injured in the night-time clashes at Islam’s third-holiest site and around East Jerusalem, Palestinian medics and Israeli police said, as thousands of Palestinians faced off with several hundred Israeli police in riot gear.
Violence erupted on Friday when Israeli police deployed heavily as Muslims were performing evening prayers at Al-Aqsa during the holy month of Ramadan.
Video footage from the scene shows worshippers throwing chairs, shoes and rocks towards the police and officers opening fire. Israeli police also closed gates leading to Al-Aqsa inside the walled Old City.
The Palestine Red Crescent ambulance service said one of the injured lost an eye, two suffered serious head wounds, and two had their jaws fractured. Most were wounded in the face and eyes by rubber-coated rounds and shrapnel from stun grenades.
An Al-Aqsa official appealed for calm on the compound through the mosque’s loudspeakers. “Police must immediately stop firing stun grenades at worshippers, and the youth must calm down and be quiet.”
Tens of thousands of Palestinian worshippers earlier packed into the mosque on the final Friday of Ramadan, and many stayed on to protest in support of Palestinians facing eviction from their homes on Israeli-occupied land claimed by Jewish settlers in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem.
Calls for calm and restraint poured in from the United States and the United Nations, with others including the European Union and Jordan voicing alarm at the possible evictions.
“If we don’t stand with this group of people here, [evictions] will [come] to my house, her house, his house and to every Palestinian who lives here,” said protester Bashar Mahmoud, 23, from the nearby Palestinian neighbourhood of Issawiya.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he “held [Israel] responsible for the dangerous developments and sinful attacks taking place in the holy city”, and called on the UN Security Council to hold an urgent session on the issue.
Abbas praised the “courageous stand” of the protesters.
Protest groups affiliated with Hamas, rulers of the Gaza Strip, said they would resume demonstrations and the launching of incendiary balloons along the heavily guarded Gaza frontier. Hamas has largely curtailed such actions over the past two years as part of an informal ceasefire that now appears to be fraying.
In an interview with a Hamas-run TV station, the group’s top leader Ismail Haniyeh addressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by name, warning him not to “play with fire”.
“Neither you nor your army and police can win this battle,” he said. “What’s happening in Jerusalem is an intifada that must not stop.”
With health restrictions mostly lifted following Israel’s swift coronavirus vaccine campaign, worshippers packed tightly together as they knelt in prayer on the tree-lined hilltop plateau containing the mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site.
However, thousands of Palestinians from the occupied West Bank were blocked from reaching the Al-Aqsa Mosque as Israeli forces set up several roadblocks and checkpoints along the way to the holy site.
Continuing tensions in the city at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were front and centre in the Friday sermon given by Sheikh Tayseer Abu Sunainah.
“Our people will remain steadfast and patient in their homes, in our blessed land,” Abu Sunainah said of the multiple Palestinian families in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood who could be evicted under a long-running legal case.
Following prayers, thousands remained in the compound to protest against the evictions, with many waving Palestinian flags and chanting a refrain common during Jerusalem protests: “With our soul and blood, we will redeem you, Aqsa”.
Israel’s Supreme Court will hold a hearing on the Sheikh Jarrah evictions on Monday. Israelis and Palestinians are bracing for more violence in the coming days.
Sunday night is “Laylat al-Qadr” or the “Night of Destiny”, the most sacred in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Worshippers will gather for intense nighttime prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Sunday night is also the start of 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.
Sheikh Jarrah’s residents are overwhelmingly Palestinian, but the neighbourhood also contains a site revered by religious Jews as the tomb of an ancient high priest, Simeon the Just.
The spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said the evictions, “if ordered and implemented, would violate Israel’s obligations under international law” on East Jerusalem territory it captured and occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.
“We call on Israel to immediately halt all forced evictions, including those in Sheikh Jarrah, and to cease any activity that would further contribute to a coercive environment and lead to a risk of forcible transfer,” spokesman Rupert Colville said on Friday.
Israel’s foreign ministry said on Friday that Palestinians were “presenting a real-estate dispute between private parties as a nationalist cause in order to incite violence in Jerusalem”.
Palestinians rejected the allegation.
‘Our families are terrified’
Over the past week, residents of Sheikh Jarrah, as well as Palestinian and international solidarity activists, have attended nightly vigils to support the Palestinian families under threat of forced displacement.
But on Friday, Israeli police blocked off the entrances of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood to hundreds of Palestinians and solidarity activists trying to enter the area, said activists.
— Oren Ziv (@OrenZiv1985) May 7, 2021
Protesters who were prevented from entering Sheikh Jarrah held a group Iftar, the evening meal which breaks the daily fast during Ramadan, and held a vigil at the police barricades.
Mohammed el-Kurd, a Palestinian resident of Sheikh Jarrah, shared photos on social media showing armed Jewish settlers walking around the neighbourhood.
“What if they massacre us?” he asked. “Our families are terrified.”
Right now in Sheikh Jarrah: settlers are walking around armed while no Palestinians are allowed in. LOOK AND LOOK AGAIN.
What if they massacre us?! Our families are terrified. Who’s to save us?! pic.twitter.com/tic35KCFfN
— mohammed el-kurd (@m7mdkurd) May 7, 2021
Israeli border police and forces have attacked the sit-ins using skunk water, tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and shock grenades over the past few days. Dozens of Palestinians have been arrested.
On Thursday night, at least 30 people were wounded and 15 arrested. Videos emerged showing Israeli settlers deliberately provoking a Palestinian communal iftar meal set up outside one of the houses, including using pepper spray. Palestinians responded by throwing chairs at the settlers.
The Sheikh Jarrah cause has escalated over the past week despite the issue running for decades.
Jewish settler organisations filed a lawsuit in the 1970s claiming the area belonged to Jews originally, and seeking the expulsion of Palestinian families living there since 1956.
These families, refugees from the 1948 Nakba, eventually settled in Sheikh Jarrah under an agreement between Jordan and the UN refugee agency.
The Israeli district court ruled that four families – al-Kurd, Iskafi, Qassim and Jaouni – must leave their homes for settlers to take over, or reach an agreement with these settler organisations by paying rent and recognising them as landlords.
The families refused and the court postponed the final verdict to Monday.