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Clashes erupt at Jerusalem holy site, 152 Palestinians hurt

JERUSALEM (AP) – Palestinians clashed with Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem before dawn yesterday as thousands gathered for prayers during the holy month of Ramadhan. Medics said that at least 152 Palestinians were wounded.

The holy site, which is sacred to Jews and Muslims, has often been the epicentre 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. Ramadhan this year coincides with Passover, a major weeklong Jewish holiday beginning yesterday 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.

Hours after the clashes began, the police said they had put an end to the violence and arrested “hundreds” of suspects. They said the mosque was re-opened and that yesterday’s midday prayers took place as usual.

Israeli authorities said they had earlier held negotiations with Muslim leaders to ensure calm and allow the prayers to take place, but that Palestinian youth hurled stones at the Mughrabi Gate, which leads to the Western Wall, a major Jewish holy site, triggering the violence.

Palestinian witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns, said a small group of Palestinians threw rocks at police, who then entered the compound in force, setting off a wider conflagration.

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound. PHOTO: AP

Videos circulating online showed Palestinians throwing 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.

Later in the morning, Israeli police entered the mosque itself. Israeli security forces rarely enter the building, and when they do it is seen by Palestinians as a major escalation.

The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service said it treated 152 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 that dozens of masked men carrying Palestinian and Hamas flags had marched to the compound before dawn yesterday and gathered stones and other objects in anticipation of unrest.

“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.

Palestinians view any large deployment of police at Al-Aqsa as a major provocation.