Palestinians clashed with Israeli riot police after barricading themselves inside a mosque at Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site, throwing firebombs and rocks at officers outside during a major Jewish holiday on Monday.
The hilltop compound in Jerusalem's Old City is a frequent flashpoint and its fate is a core issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, site of the two biblical Jewish temples. Muslims revere it as the Noble Sanctuary, where they believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven there.
Police said young protesters barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa mosque, despite an order permitting only men over the age of 50 from entering the compound for prayers. Israel has imposed the ban at times of unrest in the past as it is mostly young Palestinians who throw rocks at the holy site. Women of all ages are allowed to enter.
Palestinians stockpiled rocks and other projectiles at the Al-Aqsa mosque overnight, according to police spokeswoman Luba Samri.
Police had tried to negotiate with the Waqf — the Islamic religious authority that oversees the compound — to call for calm, but talks failed and police entered the compound to seize the "dangerous devices intended to harm visitors to the site and police and endanger their lives," she said.
Palestinians threw rocks, firebombs and firecrackers from within the mosque at the police, Samri also said, adding that the fire bombs sparked a fire at the entrance to the mosque. Waqf guards did not prevent the "desecration of the sanctity of the place," she said.
Officers later managed to restore calm but sporadic Palestinian stone throwing persisted throughout the morning. By noon the site was quiet, police said.
The director of Al-Aqsa Mosque, Omar Kiswani, blamed Israeli police for the violence.
"We asked the police yesterday not to allow any non-Muslim in the compound in these tense days, but police didn't respond positively to our demands," he said, adding that several people had suffered from tear gas inhalation.
The Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein, condemned Israel's actions against the protesters saying it will have "serious consequences."
"Israel is trying to divide the mosque between us and Jews, the mosque is ours. It's an Islamic holy site and we will not let them do that," he said.
Jerusalem police chief Moshe Edri vowed to bring violent protesters to justice. "It is inconceivable that a group of rioters desecrate a holy place and endanger lives," he said.
It was the second day in a row of violence at the site. Monday's unrest occurred on the first day of Sukkot, a weeklong festival that celebrates the fall harvest and commemorates the wandering of the ancient Israelites through the desert following the exodus from Egypt.
In ancient times, Jews made pilgrimages to Jerusalem on Sukkot, and many Jews are expected to visit the city throughout the holiday period.
Rumours have swirled among Palestinians that Jews are planning to take over the holy site, which has fueled tensions. Those rumours were exacerbated earlier this month by calls from a group of religious Jews to visit the site on the eve of the Jewish New Year.
Palestinians say that in the last two months, there has been a new development where Israel has intermittently restricted some Muslims from the compound when Jews visit. Israel says this is to reduce friction, but Palestinians claim that Israel intends to establish Muslim-free Jewish visiting hours, which they fear could upset the fragile arrangement in place. The site is so sensitive that even rumours are enough to trigger violence.
Israel has promised to ensure the delicate arrangement at the site and insists it will not allow the status quo governing the site to be changed.
But its actions in quelling the violence have drawn criticism from Arab countries, including Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel and administers Muslim religious affairs at the site.
Israel has blamed Palestinian leaders for inciting the unrest.
Non-Muslim visitors are only allowed to enter the site at specific hours and are banned by police from praying there. However many Muslims view these visits as a provocation.
The hilltop compound is so holy for Jews that they traditionally have refrained from praying there, congregating instead at the adjacent Western Wall. Israel's chief rabbis, as well as the rabbi of the Western Wall, have issued directives urging people not to ascend the Temple Mount — arguing that Jews could inadvertently enter the holiest area of the once-standing temple, where it was forbidden to tread.
But there is a movement advocating the rights for Jews to pray at the hilltop. Some try and get around the ban on prayers by secretly mumbling the words.
Police said 24 Jews and 450 tourists visited the site Monday morning.
The Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement, a small group that seeks the construction of a new Jewish temple on the site, has called for a march to the compound on Wednesday. Israeli police have promised to prevent them from getting close to the site.
About two weeks ago, there were several days of clashes as Muslim protesters barricaded themselves inside the mosque while hurling stones and fireworks at police. The unrest spread to Arab neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem, where Palestinian protesters hurled stones at police and Israeli cars.
An Israeli died when Palestinians pelted his car with rocks and several others were injured in other incidents. Dozens of Palestinians were wounded in clashes with Israeli forces in violence that followed the Jerusalem unrest then. Israel responded last week by approving harsher measures that would loosen the rules of engagement for police to respond to stone throwers.