Palestinians clashed with Israeli police early yesterday morning at Jerusalem’s flashpoint al-Aqsa mosque compound just hours before the start of the Jewish New Year, police and witnesses said.
The clashes came with tensions running high after Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon last week outlawed two Muslim groups that confront Jewish visitors to the compound, which is holy to both faiths.
Palestinian witnesses said police entered the mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, and caused damage. Police only said they closed the doors to the mosque to lock in rioters throwing stones, fireworks and other objects.
Authorities have used the same tactic in the past in a bid to restore calm and which has seen them briefly enter.
According to police, the rioters had barricaded themselves in the mosque overnight with the aim of disrupting visits by Jews to the site ahead of the start of Rosh Hashanah celebrations last night.
“Masked protesters who were inside the mosque threw stones and fireworks at police,” a police statement said. “Suspect pipes that could be filled with homemade explosives were also found at the entry to the mosque.”
A Muslim witness accused police of entering the mosque much further than would have been needed to close the doors and of causing damage, saying prayer mats were partially burned.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld says police moved into the mosque compound at about 7 am.
He said police had received reports that the protesters were planning to disrupt visits to the area by Jewish worshippers.
There were no reports of arrests or injuries, though Rosenfeld said police might arrest the protesters when they exit the building.
Police said calm later returned to the mosque complex, though clashes continued outside in the narrow alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City, with police firing tear gas and stun grenades.
“The police went inside and we are prevented from entering,” Khadijeh Khweis, who said she is a member of one of the two Muslim groups banned last week, said amid protests in the Old City.
“They are chasing us with [stun] grenades and it’s been like that since the morning. We could only pray in front of the doors [leading to the complex],” she said.
Journalists saw a number of people being detained and heavy police deployments in the Old City.
The defense minister’s move last week banned the Murabitat and Murabitun groups, which he said was necessary to “defend the security of the state, the well-being of the public and public order.”
His office said the groups were “a main factor in creating the tension and violence” at the mosque compound, venerated by Jews as the Temple Mount, and in Jerusalem at large.
Non-Muslims are allowed to visit the compound, but Jews are forbidden from praying or displaying national symbols for fear of triggering tensions with Muslim worshippers.
Muslims fear Israel will seek to change rules governing the site, with far-right Jewish groups pushing for more access and even efforts by fringe organizations to erect a new temple.
Additional reporting by AP
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