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Israeli security forces entered the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem before dawn on Friday as thousands of Palestinians were gathered for prayers during the holy month of Ramadan, setting off clashes that medics said wounded at least 117 Palestinians.
Israel said its forces entered to remove rocks and stones that had been gathered in anticipation of violence. The holy site, which is sacred to Jews and Muslims, has often been the epicenter of Israeli-Palestinian unrest, and tensions were already heightened amid a recent wave of violence. Clashes at the site last year helped spark an 11-day war with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
The clashes come at a particularly sensitive time. Ramadan this year coincides with Passover, a major weeklong Jewish holiday beginning Friday at sundown, and Christian holy week, which culminates on Easter Sunday. The holidays are expected to bring tens of thousands of faithful into Jerusalem’s Old City, home to major sites sacred to all three religions.
Videos circulating online showed Palestinians hurling rocks and fireworks and police firing tear gas and stun grenades on the sprawling esplanade surrounding the mosque. Others showed worshippers barricading themselves inside the mosque itself amid what appeared to be clouds of tear gas.
The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service said it treated 117 people, many of them wounded by rubber-coated bullets or stun grenades, or beaten with batons. The endowment said one of the guards at the site was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet.
The Israeli police said three officers were wounded from “massive stone-throwing,” with two evacuated from the scene for treatment.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said dozens of masked men carrying Palestinian and Hamas flags marched to the compound early Friday and gathered stones.
“Police were forced to enter the grounds to disperse the crowd and remove the stones and rocks, in order to prevent further violence,” it tweeted.
The police said they waited until prayers were over and the crowds started to disperse. In a statement, it said crowds started hurling rocks in the direction of the Western Wall, a nearby Jewish holy site, forcing them to act. They said they did not enter the mosque itself.
Palestinians view any large deployment of police at Al-Aqsa as a major provocation.
Israel’s national security minister, Omer Barlev, who oversees the police force, said Israel had “no interest” in violence at the holy site but that police were forced to confront “violent elements” that confronted them with stones and metal bars.