Occupied East Jerusalem – The city of Jerusalem is still tense in the aftermath of overnight raids by Israeli forces on Palestinian Muslim worshippers who were in the Al-Aqsa Mosque after nighttime tarawih prayers.
International efforts are being made to mediate between Palestinian groups and the Israeli government to reduce tensions after the latter received a barrage of condemnations for the actions of its forces.
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The raids went on into the morning, with images circulating of Israeli soldiers dragging and beating worshippers to get them out of the mosque, shortly before the compound, known as al-Haram al-Sharif to Muslims, was opened for non-Muslim visitors.
Al-Haram al-Sharif hosts Islam’s third-holiest site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock, which is believed to be where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Jews call the compound Temple Mount and believe the Biblical Jewish temples once stood there. Although mainstream Judaism forbids prayer on the site, the compound has been a source of tensions for decades.
Al Jazeera spoke to some of the Palestinian worshippers who were inside the mosque about their experience and why removing them from the mosque during the holy month of Ramadan was especially painful.
‘Violation of our holy places’
Part of Muslim worship is the act of “itikaf” – when worshippers shut themselves off from the world and spend a prolonged period in prayer and contemplation. This period can be days on end.
Many observant Muslims believe that itikaf during Ramadan is especially blessed, with Prophetic tradition saying that 10 days is the ideal length of an itikaf during the holy month.
For Palestinian Muslims, the Al-Aqsa Mosque is a beloved icon of their faith. For Palestinian Muslims in Jerusalem, it is also the one place where they want to worship during Ramadan.
“Itikaf is a part of Ramadan. I’m at Al-Aqsa every day in Ramadan – and many nights,” 29-year-old Amir Maragha from the Silwad neighbourhood of Jerusalem told Al Jazeera.
“When there are a lot of worshippers at Al-Aqsa, the raids lessen. Some people stay in the mosque to prevent the raids,” he said.
In a statement made after the raid, Israeli police claimed that they had been “forced” to enter the compound when “masked agitators” armed with fireworks, sticks and stones locked themselves in the mosque.
“When the police entered, stones were thrown at them and fireworks were fired from inside the mosque by a large group of agitators,” the statement said.
“The police always attack with brutality to prevent people from staying in the mosque,” Maragha said. “The next day, it’s safe for the settlers to make their incursions into the compounds without anybody standing in their way.”
‘People fainted, suffocated, were bleeding’
Bakr Owais, a 24-year-old student at Birzeit University, was also at the mosque that night for a Ramadan itikaf and, along with the other worshippers there, was surprised when the doors were sealed with everyone inside.
The security forces stood on the roof of the mosque and used a loudspeaker to tell the worshippers that they had to leave the mosque or else they would be removed by force.
At that point, the youth present in the mosque decided to resist as they did not want their itikaf interrupted for the sake of clearing the compound for settler visits the next morning. The security forces decided to move in.
“They broke the windows of the mosque and started throwing stun grenades at us. There were young children, elderly men, and women stuck inside,” Owais told Al Jazeera.
“Another group came through a door and started firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets at the people.
“They attacked the people, beating them on the head with sticks … people fainted, people suffocated, people were bleeding. Then they started arresting us. Huge numbers of people were taken. They kept swearing at us the whole time, pushing us onto buses that took us to the police station in Atarot where we were made to lie on the floor with our hands cuffed behind us.
“There must have been 400, 500 detainees. They took our names, then put a sticker on us with our name and number and called us in by the number, like we were worthless,” he said.
Owais, along with every other Palestinian arrested during the raid, has been banned from entering Al-Aqsa for a week.