JERUSALEM: Israeli police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades towards unarmed Palestinian youth at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque on Friday amid growing anger over the potential eviction of Palestinians from homes on land occupied by Jewish settlers.
At least 178 Palestinians and six officers were injured in the night-time clashes at Islam’s third-holiest site and around East Jerusalem, Palestinian medics and Israeli police said, as thousands of Palestinians faced off with several hundred Israeli police in riot gear.
Tension has mounted in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank during the holy month of Ramadan, with nightly clashes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah – a neighborhood where numerous Palestinian families face eviction in a long-running legal case.
Calls for calm and restraint poured in on Friday from the United States and the United Nations, with others including the European Union and Jordan voicing alarm at the possible evictions.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians packed into the hilltop compound surrounding the mosque earlier on Friday for prayers. Many stayed on to protest against the evictions in the city at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But following the evening meal that breaks the Ramadan fast, clashes broke out at Al-Aqsa with smaller scuffles near Sheikh Jarrah, which sits near the walled Old City’s famous Damascus Gate.
Police used water cannon mounted on armored vehicles to disperse several hundred protesters gathered near the homes of families facing potential eviction.
“If we don’t stand with this group of people here, (evictions) will (come) to my house, her house, his house and to every Palestinian who lives here,” said protester Bashar Mahmoud, 23, from the nearby Palestinian. neighborhood of Issawiya.
‘CALM DOWN AND BE QUIET’:
An Aqsa official appealed for calm on the compound through the mosque’s loudspeakers. “Police must immediately stop firing stun grenades at worshipers, and the youth must calm down and be quiet!”
Israel’s Supreme Court will hold a hearing on the Sheikh Jarrah evictions on Monday, the same day that Israel marks Jerusalem Day – its annual celebration of its occupation of East Jerusalem during the 1967 Middle East war.
The Palestine Red Crescent ambulance service said 88 of the Palestinians injured were taken to hospital after being hit with rubber-coated metal bullets.
One of the injured lost an eye, two suffered serious head wounds and two had their jaws fractured, the Red Crescent said. The rest of the injuries were minor, it added.
A police spokeswoman claimed Palestinians had thrown rocks, fireworks and other objects towards officers, with some of the six injured requiring medical treatment.
“We will respond with a heavy hand to any violent disturbance, rioting or harm to our officers, and will work to find those responsible and bring them to justice,” the spokeswoman said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he “held (Israel) responsible for the dangerous developments and sinful attacks taking place in the holy city” and called on the UN Security Council to hold an urgent session on the issue.
Violence has also increased in the occupied West Bank, where two Palestinian militants were killed and a third critically injured on Friday after they opened fire at an Israeli base, police said. After that incident, Israel’s military said it would send additional combat troops to the West Bank.
‘PLAYING WITH FIRE’:
Sheikh Jarrah’s residents are overwhelmingly Palestinian, but the neighborhood also contains a site revered by religious Jews as the tomb of an ancient high priest, Simon the Just.
The spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said the evictions, “if ordered and implemented, would violate Israel’s obligations under international law” on East Jerusalem territory it captured and occupied, along with the West Bank, from neighboring Jordan in 1967.
“We call on Israel to immediately halt all forced evictions, including those in Sheikh Jarrah, and to cease any activity that would further contribute to a coercive environment and lead to a risk of forcible transfer,” spokesman Rupert Colville said on Friday.
Washington was “deeply concerned about the heightened tensions in Jerusalem,” said US State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter.
“As we head into a sensitive period in the days ahead, it will be critical for all sides to ensure calm and act responsibly to descalate tensions and avoid violent confrontation,” Porter said.
The European Union, Jordan and the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council have expressed alarm at the potential evictions.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said Jordan had given the Palestinian Authority documents that he said showed Sheikh Jarrah Palestinians were the “legitimate owners” of their homes.
Israel’s “provocative steps in occupied Jerusalem and violation of Palestinian rights, including the rights of the people of Sheikh Jarrah in their homes, is playing with fire,” Safadi said in a foreign ministry statement on Twitter.
Israel’s foreign ministry claimed on Friday that Palestinians were “presenting a real-estate dispute between private parties as a nationalist cause, in order to incite violence in Jerusalem.” Palestinians rejected the allegation.