Video on social media showed Israeli forces using tear gas and flash grenades at the holy site to break up a crowd of men — some in masks — throwing rocks and furniture. Medics said at least 154 Palestinians and three police officers were injured, according to local media reports.
An Israeli police official said in a radio interview Friday that only a few of the estimated 12,000 worshipers were involved, including some who threw stones at Jews praying at the adjacent Western Wall. Officers cleared the plaza in time for an estimated 60,000 worshipers to return uneventfully to the mosque for noon prayers.
Violence at the same holy site a year ago, in which Israeli police entered the mosque to battle protesters, led to a two-week air assault in the nearby Gaza Strip. Officials are trying to head off another escalation during a convergence of religious holidays that bring worshipers to Jerusalem: Ramadan, Passover and Easter.
Israel said it would bar Palestinians from entering from the West Bank from Friday afternoon through Saturday. The army said it was deploying additional forces to the West Bank, where it has been ramping up actions against suspected militants.
The Palestinians killed in Thursday raids included two young men from the Jenin area, an impoverished hotbed of political and militant activity in the northern occupied territories.
The area has been the target of intensified Israeli arrest raids and economic restrictions since April 7, when Raed Hazem, a 28-year-old accountant from the Jenin refugee camp, fatally shot three people at a bar on Tel Aviv’s bustling Dizengoff Street. Hazem was killed in a shootout with Israeli security forces after a nine-hour overnight manhunt.
The wave of violence comes as Israel’s government faces the prospect of fresh elections after losing its fragile parliamentary majority, and as peace negotiations between Israel and the widely unpopular Palestinian leadership remain moribund. The leader of the only Arab party that is part of the governing coalition, the United Arab List, warned Friday that Israeli police incursions into the mosque could lead them to pull out of the partnership.
“There are no political considerations when it comes to al-Aqsa,” UAL chairman Mansour Abbas said in a radio interview.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett vowed “to eradicate this terrorism” and called on Israeli civilians with gun licenses to carry arms with them in public.
The Tel Aviv shooting followed three other attacks, carried out by Palestinians from the West Bank and from Israel, that left 13 people dead. Since last month, Israel has doubled the number of battalions intended to reinforce soldiers in the West Bank, as well as along Israel’s borders with the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Israeli forces have been combing cities and villages in the West Bank in search of suspects or accomplices linked to recent Palestinian attacks. In Israel, security forces interrogated dozens of Palestinian citizens of Israel on suspicion of links to the Islamic State militant group after a Palestinian gunman, convicted of trying to join Islamic State fighters in Syria, killed two people in the northern Israeli town of Hadera in late March.
On Friday, a 15-year-old Israeli-Palestinian girl in the port city of Haifa stabbed a 47-year-old man in the leg. Days earlier, another Palestinian citizen of Israel, who had been detained in Turkey in 2015 for trying to cross the Syrian border, stabbed three people and rammed another person with his car.
Among the men in the Jenin area killed over the past 24 hours was the brother of Ayman Kamamji, one of the Palestinian prisoners who escaped the Gilboa Prison in northern Israel last year and was later captured after a nationwide manhunt.
Four other Palestinians were killed during operations Wednesday night near the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
Amin Khazem, an uncle of Raed Hazem, said Raed told the family that he was going to break the Ramadan fast in Jaffa. His family watched the initial news not knowing Raed was the shooter. Around 6 a.m., Raed’s father began calling family members to confirm that his son was dead. Israeli soldiers raided the family home the following day, but Raed’s parents and siblings had gone into hiding.
Khazem said he was shocked that his nephew was the gunman but was not surprised that anger was boiling all around the West Bank.
On account of the Israeli occupation, “there’s pressure and pressure and pressure and then suddenly an explosion,” he said. Nearly all of those killed in Jenin in recent weeks have been 30 or younger, having lived only in the period after the Oslo peace accords.
Highway of hope and heartbreak
The faces of some of the dead have appeared on posters put out by the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the armed wing of the ruling Fatah party. Khazem said that some of the dead were not affiliated with the group but that including them was a way for the faction to save face at a time when there is deep dissatisfaction with the Palestinian political system in the West Bank.
“Everyone buys the guns and bullets on their own,” said a relative of Raed who refused to give his name because he is wanted by Israeli security forces. In the passenger seat of his car was an M-16 rifle with an Israeli army insignia.
Earlier Thursday, violent clashes broke out in the West Bank city of Nablus, after Palestinians pelted the armored vehicles of Israeli forces escorting a work crew that was to repair Joseph’s Tomb, a holy Jewish site in the city that Palestinians vandalized last weekend, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. The Israeli military announced that from 4 p.m. until midnight on Friday — as the Jewish holiday of Passover begins — it will enforce a general lockdown on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. People will not be allowed to enter or exit except in special humanitarian cases.
Israeli intelligence agencies have been preparing for a spike in violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which for the first time in years converges with Passover and Easter.
After the Tel Aviv attack last week, the police raised the alert level to its highest since last May, when bloody Palestinian-Israeli clashes around and at al-Aqsa Mosque, a historic flash point in Jerusalem, sparked an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The war was accompanied by deadly intercommunal street battles and bloody confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers across the West Bank.
Why many Israelis who live near Gaza opposed the cease-fire
“We’re going into oblivion — only God knows what will come out of this,” said Hussein Zakarna, a resident of Jenin whose son Mohammad, 17, was killed by Israeli forces on Sunday.
The Israeli military said he was involved in the day’s violence. But Zakarna said he had forbid his son just a day earlier to join others at the demonstrations against Israeli troops. He said his son was on his way from work at a vegetable stand to break the Ramadan fast with the family.
“You are dead both ways,” Zakarna said.
Rubin reported from Tel Aviv. Hendrix contributed from Jerusalem.