JERUSALEM ( Associated Press) — More than 2,500 Jews flocked to Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site Sunday ahead of an ultra-nationalist Israeli march scheduled for later Sunday through the Muslim quarter in the city’s old quarter, prompting Palestinians to barricaded in the Al Aqsa mosque to throw stones and fireworks at attendees and nearby Israeli agents.
Thousands of policemen fanned out across the city for Sunday’s march, in which flag-waving Israeli nationalists planned to cut through the heart of the Old City’s main Palestinian thoroughfare.
According to Israel, the march is intended to celebrate the capture of East Jerusalem, including the old area, in the 1967 Middle East War. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, but the Palestinians, who claim the eastern part of the city as the capital of their future state, they see the march as a provocation.
The parade last year helped spark an 11-day war between Israel and militants from the Gaza Strip.
Early Sunday, some 1,800 Jews visited a disputed hilltop complex revered by both Jews and Muslims. There is the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest place in Islam.
Al Aqsa serves as a powerful symbol for Palestinians. The complex is also the holiest site for Jews, who call it the Temple Mount and revere it as the home of biblical temples. The site’s conflicting claims lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have sparked numerous rounds of violence.
Dozens of Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the mosque and began throwing objects and fireworks as the Jews began to arrive.
Among the visitors was Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of a small ultra-nationalist opposition party and supporter of the late racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, who entered with dozens of supporters under heavy police surveillance.
Several Palestinians exclaimed “God is great” while Ben-Gvir, accompanied by Israeli police, shouted “the Jewish people live”. Police said they closed the doors of the mosque and said they made 18 arrests. There were no reports of injuries.
Without explanation, the Israeli police took the rare step of barring Palestinian journalists, including an Associated Press photographer, from entering the compound.
Sunday’s march was taking place at a time of heightened tensions. In recent months, Israeli police have repeatedly clashed with Palestinian protesters throwing stones at the disputed compound, often using rubber bullets and stun grenades.
In that period, some 19 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks in Israel and the occupied West Bank, while some 35 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli army operations in the occupied West Bank.
Many of those killed were Palestinian militants, but several civilians were also among the dead, including Shireen Abu Akleh, a well-known correspondent for Al Jazeera satellite television.
Jerusalem police received international criticism for beating attendees at Abu Akleh’s funeral two weeks ago.
Under agreements reached years ago, Jewish pilgrims can access the Esplanade of the Mosques complex, but are not allowed to pray. However, in recent years the number of Jewish visitors has grown considerably, including some who have been seen discreetly praying.
That has stoked Palestinian fears that Israel plans to seize or partition the space. Israel denies those accusations and says it remains committed to maintaining the current situation.