Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and recurrent Ramadan tensions

Tensions in Jerusalem flared after Israeli police attacked worshipers at Al-Aqsa Mosque during the holy month of Ramadan.

The raids continued until Wednesday morning, when Israeli forces were again seen attacking and pushing Palestinians out of the compound and preventing them from praying – before Israelis were allowed under police protection.

What happened in the Al-Aqsa compound?

Before dawn on Wednesday, Israeli police stormed the grounds of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem and attacked dozens of worshipers inside the Qibli Mosque.

Israeli police, claiming they were responding to “riots”, beat worshipers with batons and used tear gas and sound bombs to force them out of prayer rooms, witnesses said.

Videos shared on social media showed women screaming for help as a fire broke out in the prayer hall.

The Palestinian Red Crescent reported that 12 people were injured, including three who were taken to hospital. It also said in a statement that Israeli troops prevented its medics from reaching Al-Aqsa.

At least 400 Palestinians have been arrested and remain in Israeli custody, according to local officials.

People clean the Al-Aqsa compound after the raid by Israeli forces on the Old City of East Jerusalem, April 5, 2023 [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

Why would armed security forces enter a mosque?

Israeli police said in a statement they were forced into the compound after “masked agitators” locked themselves inside the mosque with fireworks, sticks and stones.

“When the police entered, stones were thrown at them and fireworks were fired from the mosque by a large group of agitators,” the statement said, adding that a police officer was injured in the leg.

The Israeli police also said that under a previous agreement with the authorities of the Al-Aqsa compound, no one was allowed to spend the night in the compound during the month of Ramadan.

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“Police said they tried ‘peacefully’ to convince people to leave, but when they didn’t, they pushed into Al-Aqsa,” Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim said.

But Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh condemned what happened as “a great crime against the worshipers,” adding that “prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque cannot be performed with the permission of the [Israeli] occupation… it is our right.”

“Al-Aqsa is for the Palestinians and for all Arabs and Muslims, and its raiding is a spark of revolution against the occupation,” he added.

INTERACTIVE Al Aqsa Mosque Connection Jerusalem
(Al Jazeera)

Has this happened before?

In recent years, Al-Aqsa Mosque has been an annual focal point during Ramadan.

Last year, more than 300 Palestinians were arrested and at least 170 injured when Israeli troops raided the compound during the holy month. This followed deadly violence in the occupied West Bank in late March, which left 36 people dead.

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In May 2021, Israeli forces stormed the compound with tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and stun grenades against worshipers during Ramadan. Hundreds of Palestinians were injured, prompting international condemnation.

The developments coincided with an increase in violent incidents against Palestinians by Israeli settlers and troops in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, as Palestinian families were threatened with forcible eviction from their homes.

Clashes in Jerusalem and the wider West Bank culminated in an 11-day Israeli offensive into the Gaza Strip on May 10, which killed at least 256 Palestinians, including 66 children, and injured more than 1,900, according to the Gaza Health Ministry . Thirteen people were killed in Israel, including two children, an Indian woman and two Thai men.

Israeli police detain a Palestinian believer on the grounds of Al-Aqsa Mosque
Israeli police detain a Palestinian believer at the Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem’s Old City during Ramadan [File: Mahmoud Illean/AP Photo]

Why are the Palestinians afraid of the future of Al-Aqsa?

The Al-Aqsa compound is located on a plateau in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move unrecognized by most of the international community.

For Muslims, the compound is home to Islam’s third-holiest site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock, a seventh-century structure believed to be the site where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

The compound is also where Jews believe the Biblical Jewish Temples once stood and is known to them as Temple Mount.

The disputed site has been the focal point of Israel’s decades-long occupation of the West Bank.

“Jerusalem is perhaps the single most important problem that can lead to large-scale violence,” Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, told Al Jazeera last year. “We’ve seen that in the past,” he says.

Palestinians see Al-Aqsa as one of the few national symbols over which they retain some control. However, they fear a slow encroachment by Jewish groups, similar to what happened at the Ibrahimi Mosque (Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron, where half of the mosque was turned into a synagogue after 1967.

Palestinians are also concerned about far-right Israeli movements that want to demolish the Islamic structures in Al-Aqsa Mosque and build a Jewish temple there.

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Muslim worshipers pray outside the Dome of the Rock Mosque on the grounds of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City on Friday, March 31, 2023.
Muslim worshipers perform Friday prayers outside the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem during Ramadan [File: Mahmoud Illean/AP Photo]

Why do Jews want to enter the Al-Aqsa compound?

In recent years, large groups of nationalist Jews have regularly visited the site with police escort, something the Palestinians consider a provocation.

Earlier this week, Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir encouraged Jews to visit the site on the occasion of the upcoming Passover holiday, which coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

At the same time, fringe Jewish groups, including the Return to Temple Mount, have offered cash prizes to anyone who enters Al-Aqsa Mosque and sacrifices a goat — a Jewish religious ritual that is banned in the mosque and is a further provocation. No offerings have been made on the site so far.

On Monday, a leader of one of the groups planning to make a sacrifice in Al-Aqsa was detained by Israeli police.

Palestinians walk out as Israeli security forces take up position on the Al-Aqsa compound
Palestinians walk out as Israeli security forces take up position on the Al-Aqsa compound [Ammar Awad/Reuters]