JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli security forces entered the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem before dawn on Friday as thousands of Palestinians were gathered for prayers during the holy month of Ramadan, setting off clashes that medics said wounded at least 67 Palestinians.
Israel said its forces entered to remove rocks and stones that had been gathered in anticipation of violence. The holy site, which is sacred to Jews and Muslims, has often been the epicenter of Israeli-Palestinian unrest, and tensions were already heightened amid a recent wave of violence. Clashes at the site last year helped spark an 11-day war with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
The clashes come at a particularly sensitive time. Ramadan this year coincides with Passover, a major weeklong Jewish holiday beginning Friday at sundown, and Christian holy week, which culminates on Easter Sunday. The holidays are expected to bring tens of thousands of faithful into Jerusalem’s Old City, home to major sites sacred to all three religions.
Videos circulating online showed Palestinians hurling rocks and fireworks and police firing tear gas and stun grenades on the sprawling esplanade surrounding the mosque. Others showed worshippers barricading themselves inside the mosque itself amid what appeared to be clouds of tear gas.
The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service said it evacuated 67 people to hospitals who had been wounded by rubber-coated bullets or stun grenades, or beaten with batons. The endowment said one of the guards at the site was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet.
The Israeli police said three officers were wounded from “massive stone-throwing,” with two evacuated from the scene for treatment.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said dozens of masked men carrying Palestinian and Hamas flags marched to the compound early Friday and gathered stones.
“Police were forced to enter the grounds to disperse the crowd and remove the stones and rocks, in order to prevent further violence,” it tweeted.
The police said they waited until prayers were over and the crowds started to disperse. In a statement, it said crowds started hurling rocks in the direction of the Western Wall, a nearby Jewish holy site, forcing them to act. They said they did not enter the mosque itself.
Palestinians view any large deployment of police at Al-Aqsa as a major provocation.
Israel’s national security minister, Omer Barlev, who oversees the police force, said Israel had “no interest” in violence at the holy site but that police were forced to confront “violent elements” that confronted them with stones and metal bars.
He said Israel was committed to freedom of worship for Jews and Muslims alike. Police said Friday’s noon prayers at the mosque — when tens of thousands of people were expected — would take place as usual.
The mosque is the third holiest site in Islam. It is built on a hilltop in Jerusalem’s Old City that is the most sacred site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount because it was the site of the Jewish temples in antiquity. It has been a major flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian violence for decades and was the epicenter of the 2000-2005 Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
Tensions have soared in recent weeks following a series of attacks by Palestinians that killed 14 people inside Israel. Israel has carried out a wave of arrests and military operations across the occupied West Bank, setting off clashes with Palestinians.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said a 17-year-old died early Friday from wounds suffered during clashes with Israeli forces in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank, the day before.
At least 25 Palestinians have been killed in the recent wave of violence, according to an Associated Press count, many of whom had carried out attacks or were involved in the clashes, but also an unarmed woman and a lawyer who appears to have been killed by mistake.
Weeks of protests and clashes in Jerusalem during Ramadan last year eventually ignited an 11-day war with the Islamic militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.
Israel had lifted restrictions and taken other steps to try and calm tensions ahead of Ramadan, but the attacks and the military raids have brought about another cycle of unrest.
Hamas condemned what it said were “brutal attacks” on worshippers at Al-Aqsa by Israeli forces, saying Israel would bear “all the consequences.” It called on all Palestinians to “stand by our people in Jerusalem.”
Earlier this week, Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza had called on Palestinians to camp out at the Al-Aqsa mosque over the weekend. Palestinians have long feared that Israel plans to take over the site or partition it.
Israeli authorities say they are committed to maintaining the status quo, but in recent years nationalist and religious Jews have visited the site in large numbers with police escorts.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, home to Al-Aqsa and other major holy sites, in the 1967 war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. Palestinians want the eastern part of the city to be the capital of a future independent state including the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel also captured during the war nearly 55 years ago.