JERUSALEM/GAZA – Israeli troopers entered Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest shrine in Islam, and carried out arrests on Friday in what police described as a pursuit of youths who had lobbed rocks and fireworks during clashes with its forces outside.
The rare raid, on a site that is an emblem of Palestinians’ statehood hopes and a frequent catalyst of their conflict with Israel, came as medics in Gaza said Israeli army gunfire killed two people – including a boy – during a weekly border protest.
A police spokesman said the troopers were sent into al-Aqsa after suspects who had barricaded themselves in after running confrontations in the surrounding compound, during which masked men launched firecrackers from handheld canisters.
There was no immediate word of any violence in the mosque, whose older male worshippers said they had been allowed to exit after being searched. Witnesses later saw around 20 younger men detained by police, and said mosque prayers later resumed.
Police put the number of arrests at 24, and said four of its officers were injured in the melee. Muslim authorities said dozens of people were hurt by Israeli police stun grenades.
“The continued Israeli attacks against occupied Jerusalem will increase tensions and will drag the region into a religious war that we have long warned against,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s office said in a statement.
Al Aqsa compound, also revered by Jews as a vestige of their two ancient temples, was among areas Israel captured in a 1967 war with Jordan, which retains a stewardship role at the mosque.
In Gaza, medics said a man and a 14-year-old boy were killed and dozens wounded by army fire, bringing to 154 the Palestinian death toll during demonstrations launched on March 30 to demand rights to land lost to Israel in the 1948 war of its founding.
The dead man, 43-year-old Ghazi Abu Mustafa, was brought to a hospital tent staffed by his wife, a medic, who collapsed when she discovered him among the casualties, her colleagues said.
The Israeli military said troops opened fire to hold off thousands of Palestinians, some of whom threw rocks and rolled burning tyres at the border fence in attempts to sabotage it.
Israel says its lethal tactics are needed to prevent armed infiltrations and accuses Gaza’s Islamist Hamas rulers of encouraging the disturbances to distract from their governance problems under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade. Hamas denies this.
While several foreign powers have censured Israel’s handling of Gaza, the United States has echoed its blaming of Hamas.
The four months of Gaza tensions have also seen cross-border shelling and gunfire exchange. Over the last week, an Israeli soldier was killed and another wounded by what the army said were Gaza snipers, and seven Hamas gunmen died in air strikes.
Israel has lost tracts of farmland and forests to fires set by kites and helium balloons, laden with incendiary material and flown over from Gaza. The Israelis have responded by preventing the entry of non-essential commercial goods to Gaza.
In the occupied West Bank, another territory where Palestinians want independence, a teenaged Palestinian knifed a Jewish settler to death and wounded two others on Thursday before being shot and killed. Locals said that Israeli troops, raiding the assailant’s village on Friday, wounded a man.