JERUSALEM — Tensions ran high after clashes erupted in Jerusalem’s Old City on Sunday at Al-Aqsa mosque compound, a site revered by Muslims and Jews that has been a major faultline in the Middle East conflict.
Palestinian youths hurled rocks at Israeli police, who were deployed throughout the winding narrow streets of the Old City, and police retaliated with stun grenades, witnesses said.
Police said 17 security force members were wounded in the clashes and 11 people arrested. Witnesses reported seeing around a dozen wounded Palestinians.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Israel was deliberately raising tensions “at a time when President (Barack) Obama is trying to bridge the divide between Palestinians and Israelis, and to get negotiations back on track.”
“Providing a police escort for settlers who are against peace at all costs, and whose presence is deliberately designed to provoke a reaction, are not the actions of someone who is committed to peace,” he said.
In Cairo, the Arab League expressed “extreme anger” over what it called a “premeditated aggression” by Israeli security forces who had allowed “Zionist extremists” into the mosque compound.
Jordan summoned Israel’s ambassador in Amman in protest at the Israeli “escalation.”
By early afternoon a tense calm reigned in the historic city, with dozens of police officers patrolling the narrow streets and barricades erected at some of the main gates along the city’s 400-year-old walls.
“There is a large police presence in the Old City … In general, things are quiet,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP.
Police and witnesses said the unrest erupted after a group of tourists entered the mosque compound, known to Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
Initially the police said the group was made up of Jewish worshippers, but later said they were French tourists.
“The group attacked by stones at the mosque compound was in fact a group of non-Jewish French tourists who visited it as part of their trip,” said Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben Ruby.
The visitors were probably mistaken for Jewish worshippers because a group of 200 mostly religious and right-wing Jews had gathered in the early morning at the gate through which police allow tourists access to the holy site.
“There was a large group of Jewish settlers who gathered outside Al-Aqsa and tried to break in,” said a Palestinian witness who would give his name only as Abu Raed.
“Some of them entered and went all the way to the heart of the compound, where there were people praying … They were Jewish settlers dressed as tourists,” he said.
After entering the sprawling compound, the group was confronted by about 150 Muslim faithful who chanted and eventually threw rocks, at which point the police pulled the tourists out and closed the gate, police and witnesses said.
Immediately after the clash, police blocked off the compound.
The Islamist Hamas movement ruling Gaza slammed the “dangerous escalation” and called for protests. “The occupation bears full responsibility for all the consequences and developments that will follow from this crime,” it said.
An estimated 3,000 people turned out in Gaza City later on Sunday for a demonstration “in defence of the mosque,” witnesses said.
Al-Aqsa mosque compound is on the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest in Islam, and has often been the flashpoint of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
The second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, erupted there after former Israeli premier Ariel Sharon made a controversial visit in September 2000.
Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it along with the rest of mostly Arab east Jerusalem in a move not recognised by the international community.