Tensions ran high Sunday in annexed east Jerusalem after hundreds of Palestinians were wounded in a weekend of clashes between protesters and Israeli security forces, sparking global concern that the unrest could spread further.
The violence around Jerusalem’s revered Al-Aqsa mosque compound and the Old City, mostly at night, is the worst since 2017, fuelled by a years-long bid by Jewish settlers to take over Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem.
Speaking ahead of a weekly cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israel “would decisively and responsibly impose law and order in Jerusalem”, while preserving “freedom of worship for all religious.”
Tunisia’s foreign ministry said it has called for a meeting Monday of the UN Security Council to discuss the escalating violence.
Some 121 Palestinians were wounded in Saturday’s overnight clashes, many hit by rubber bullets and stun grenades, the Palestinian Red Crescent said in an updated toll.
Israeli police said 17 of its officers were wounded.
The previous night more than 220 people, again mostly Palestinians, were hurt after Israeli police stormed Al-Aqsa after they said Palestinians threw rocks and fireworks at officers.
Four Arab countries that have normalised ties with Israel — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — all condemned the Israeli actions at Al-Aqsa, voicing support for Palestinians demonstrators.
Khartoum labelled Israeli measures in Jerusalem against Palestinians as “repression”, while Abu Dhabi urged Israeli authorities to “take responsibility for de-escalation.”
On Saturday night, thousands of Palestinians packed Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam’s third holiest site which Jews revere as the Temple Mount, to hold special Ramadan prayers.
Israeli police set up roadblocks saying it wanted to limit access to the Old City and avoid “violent riots”, effectively preventing hundreds more from joining the prayers.
A bus heading to east Jerusalem was stopped and some Palestinians detained for questioning by police, an AFP reporter said, while hundreds of Palestinians marched on highways to the Holy City.
“They want to stop us from going to Al-Aqsa,” said Ali al-Komani, 40, outside the holy site.
– Heightened tensions –
Saturday’s Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Destiny) was a peak of the holy fasting month, believed to be the night when the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed.
The prayers at Al-Aqsa were held peacefully, but violence flared elsewhere in east Jerusalem, in the West Bank and on the border between the blockaded Gaza Strip and Israel.
Israeli mounted police deployed outside Damascus Gate, a key access point to the Old City of Jerusalem, as agents fired stun grenades to disperse Palestinian protesters.
Palestinians pelted riot police with stones and set fire to a makeshift barricade, and a woman with a bloody face was escorted away from the scene by a rescuer, reporters said.
Police said they detained nine people for “disrupting public order” and warned that “all means will be used to maintain calm”.
Police also dispersed a rally in Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, where Palestinian families facing eviction from their homes in a dispute with Jewish settlers are expecting a Supreme Court decision on Monday.
Police fired stun grenades and water cannon at protesters who pelted them with stones, while a group of Palestinians clapped and sang “We will return”.
A reporter for Israeli public television tweeted footage of a Jewish driver whose car was attacked with stones and windows shattered at the entrance to Sheikh Jarrah.
“We are here, in the street, to say that we are not going to leave,” demonstrator Adnan, 20, told AFP.
“For years, settlers have attacked us and taken our land but silence is no longer an option.”
In Gaza, Palestinians packed tyres inside vehicles and drove to the border with Israel where they set them on fire. They also fired incendiary balloons Saturday across the frontier.
– Calls for calm –
The violence has sparked international calls for calm, as Israel defended its actions.
Pope Francis called for calm.
“Violence only generates violence. Let’s stop these clashes,” he said. “I pray so that this (Jerusalem) might be a place of encounter and not violent clashes, a place of prayer and of peace.”
The Middle East Quartet of envoys from the European Union, Russia, the United States and the United Nations expressed “deep concern” and called for restraint.
The United States has urged both sides to “avoid steps that exacerbate tensions”.
“This includes evictions in east Jerusalem, settlement activity, home demolitions and acts of terrorism,” the State Department said.
Russia said the expropriation of land and property in the occupied Palestinian territories including east Jerusalem was “a violation of international law”.
Jordan, the custodian of holy sites in east Jerusalem, condemning Israel’s “barbaric attack”.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas voiced “full support for our heroes in Al-Aqsa”, and his rivals in the Islamist movement Hamas warned that “the resistance is ready to defend Al-Aqsa at any cost”.