A far-right Israeli lawmaker, who joined scores of ultranationalist supporters, entered Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site early on Sunday, prompting a crowd of Palestinians to throw stones and fireworks at nearby Israeli police.
The unrest broke out ahead of a massive ultranationalist Israeli march planned later on Sunday in the middle of the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. About 3,000 Israeli police were deployed throughout the city before the march.
Israel says the march is to celebrate Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, including the Old City, in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel claims the whole of Jerusalem as its capital. But the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, see the march as a provocation. Last year, the parade helped start an 11-day war between Israel and Gaza militants.
Sunday’s unrest took place in a mountain complex revered by Jews and Muslims. The complex houses the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. It is also the holiest site for Jews, who call it Temple Mount and regard it as the home of biblical temples. Competing claims to the site are at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have led to several rounds of violence.
Itamar Ben-Gavir, the leader of a small extremist opposition party and a follower of the late rabbi and political extremist, Mir Kahane, entered the compound early Sunday with dozens of supporters.
The Palestinians shouted “God is great”, as Ben-Gavir, accompanied by the Israeli police, shouted “Jewish people live”.
Israel’s national police chief, Kobi Shabtai, said his army was prepared for “every scenario” and had taken “immediate and professional” action if needed.
“We will not allow any instigator or rioters to sabotage today’s incidents and disrupt law and order,” he said.
Sunday’s March comes at a time of rising tension. Israeli police have repeatedly encountered Palestinian protesters throwing stones at the disputed compound in recent months, often with rubber bullets and stun grenades.
At the same time, some 19 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian bombers in Israel and the occupied West Bank in recent weeks, while more than 35 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli military operations in the occupied West Bank. Many of those killed were Palestinian terrorists, but many civilians were among those killed, including Shirin Abu Aqleh, a well-known correspondent for the Al Jazeera satellite channel.
Jerusalem police were internationally criticized for beating mourners at the funeral of Abu Aqleh two weeks ago.
Under a long-standing arrangement known as the “status quo”, Jewish pilgrims are allowed to enter the mountain complex, but are not allowed to pray. In recent years, however, the number of Jewish visitors has increased significantly, including some who have been seen praying silently.
Such scenes have given rise to Palestinian fears that Israel is plotting to annex or divide the region. Israel denies such claims, saying it remains committed to the status quo.