The Arab League is set to hold an emergency meeting to discuss an Israeli police raid on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem that left at least 12 Palestinians injured, as Israeli Prime Miniser Benjamin Netanyahu said he was working to “maintain the status quo” at the holy site.
The Arab League meeting was called by Jordan, Egypt and Palestinian officials, with tensions remaining high in Jerusalem since Israeli police attacked worshippers in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound overnight on Wednesday, during the holy month of Ramadan.
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The raids continued into the morning when Israeli forces were once again seen assaulting and pushing Palestinians out of the compound and preventing them from praying – before Israelis were allowed in under police protection.
The League had earlier condemned the attack, with Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit saying in a statement: “The extremist approaches that control the policy of the Israeli government will lead to widespread confrontations with the Palestinians if they are not put to an end.”
At least 400 Palestinians were arrested on Wednesday and remain in Israeli custody, according to Palestinian officials. They are being held at a police station in Atarot in occupied East Jerusalem.
Palestinian witnesses said Israeli forces used excessive force including stun grenades and tear gas, causing suffocation injuries to the worshippers, and beatings with batons and rifles.
“We were conducting itikaf [Muslim religious worship] at Al-Aqsa because it’s Ramadan,” said Bakr Owais, a 24-year-old student who was detained. “The army broke the upper windows of the mosque and began throwing stun grenades at us …They made us lay on the ground and they hand cuffed us one by one and took us all out. They kept swearing at us during this time. It was very barbaric.”
The Palestinian Red Crescent reported that three of the injured people were transferred to hospital. It also said in a statement that Israeli forces prevented its medics from reaching Al-Aqsa.
The raids continued until Wednesday morning when Israeli forces were once again seen assaulting and pushing Palestinians out of the mosque compound and preventing them from praying, before Israelis were allowed in under police protection.
“I was sitting on a chair reciting [the Quran],” an elderly woman told the Reuters news agency while sitting outside the mosque, struggling to catch her breath. “They hurled stun grenades, one of them hit my chest,” she said as she began to cry.
Israeli police said in a statement that they were forced to enter the compound after “masked agitators” locked themselves inside the mosque with fireworks, sticks and stones.
“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, adding that a police officer was wounded in the leg.
In a statement issued later on Wednesday, Netanyahu said that he was trying to calm the situation at Al-Aqsa.
“Israel is committed to maintaining freedom of worship, freedom of access to all religions and the status quo and will not allow violent extremists to change that,” Netanyahu said.
Washington said on Wednesday that it was “extremely concerned” about the violence.
“We urge all sides to avoid further escalation,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. “It is imperative now more than ever that Israelis and Palestinians work together to de-escalate tensions and restore calm.”
Tension has already been high in occupied East Jerusalem and West Bank for months. There are fears of further violence as important religious festivals – the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and the Jewish Passover – converge.
Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim said that the attacks were anticipated as there have been calls on social media urging Palestinians to come to Al-Aqsa and “defend it from the occupiers”.
A number of Jews are expected to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound during routine visiting hours of non-Muslims.
“People who usually visit are nationalists with very conservative ideology and although the Jews are not allowed to pray inside the compound, their mere presence is a sensitive topic,” Ghoneim reported from occupied East Jerusalem.
Palestinian groups condemned the latest attacks on worshippers, which they described as a crime.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said in a statement “What happened in Jerusalem is a major crime against the worshipers. Prayer in Al-Aqsa Mosque is not with the permission of the [Israeli] occupation, but rather it is our right.
“Al-Aqsa is for the Palestinians and for all Arabs and Muslims, and the raiding of it is a spark of revolution against the occupation,” he added.
Jordan, which acts as custodian of Jerusalem’s Christian and Muslim holy sites under a status quo arrangement in place since the 1967 war, condemned Israel’s “flagrant” storming of the compound.
Egypt’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, called for an immediate halt to Israel’s “blatant assault” on Al-Aqsa worshippers.
Confrontations at Al-Aqsa, the third-holiest shrine in Islam and the most sacred site in Judaism – in which it is referred to as the Temple Mount – have sparked deadly cross-border wars between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers in the past – the last being in 2021.
Hamas condemned the latest raid as “an unprecedented crime” and called on Palestinians in the West Bank “to go en masse to the Al-Aqsa mosque to defend it”.
After the violence at Al-Aqsa, several rockets were fired from northern Gaza towards Israel.
The Israeli army said five rockets were intercepted by the aerial defence system around the city of Sderot in southern Israel and that four others had fallen in uninhabited areas.
Israeli planes attacked multiple sites in Gaza, striking targets at a “military site” west of the city and a site in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the centre of the strip, according to Al Jazeera’s Maram Humaid in Gaza.
In Gaza, dozens of demonstrators took to the streets overnight, burning tyres.
“We swear to defend and protect the Al-Aqsa mosque,” the AFP news agency reported them as saying.
Palestinians see Al-Aqsa as one of the few national symbols over which they retain some element of control. They are, however, fearful of a slow encroachment by Jewish groups akin to what has happened at the Ibrahimi Mosque (Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron, where half of the mosque was turned into a synagogue after 1967.
Palestinians are also worried about far-right Israeli movements that want to demolish the Islamic structures in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and build a Jewish temple in their place.