Clashes erupt as Israel police enter flashpoint Jerusalem mosque

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Israeli police arrested more than 350 people after clashes erupted inside the flashpoint Jerusalem Al-Aqsa mosque early Wednesday when officers came to dislodge “agitators” in a movement denounced by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.

Palestinian militants responded with rocket fire into Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, prompting retaliatory Israeli airstrikes.

The violence came at a high tension in annexed east Jerusalem as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan coincided with the Passover holiday.

Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, called on Palestinians in the West Bank to “go to the Al-Aqsa mosque to protect it” en masse.

Israeli police said they entered the mosque to free “inciters” who had barricaded themselves inside with fireworks, sticks and stones, leading to more than 350 arrests.

The mosque compound in the east of Jerusalem’s Old City has long been a flashpoint for violence between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, especially during Ramadan, which draws thousands of worshipers to Al-Aqsa.

The mosque, which is Islam’s third holiest site, is built on top of what Jews call the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site.

The fresh violence comes almost halfway through Ramadan and as Jews prepare to celebrate Passover on Wednesday evening.

Israeli police have released footage showing explosions of fireworks inside the mosque and figures throwing stones.

Another police video shows riot police with shields advancing through the mosque under a barrage of explosions.

The footage then shows a barricaded door and firework boxes on the floor, as well as police escorting at least five people outside with their hands cuffed behind their backs.

– rockets fired –

Israeli police said they were forced into the mosque after “several law-breaking youths and masked agitators” barricaded themselves inside.

“The instigators reinforced it, hours after the Taraweeh prayer (the last of the day) to disrupt public order and destroy the mosque,” a police statement said.

“After many long attempts to get them out by talking to no avail, police forces had to enter the compound to get them out with the intention of allowing the Fajr (dawn) prayer and prevent violent disturbances.

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

The police “contained the rioters”, who “damaged and destroyed the mosque”.

After news of the clashes at Al-Aqsa, at least nine rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, the army said.

He said five were intercepted by air defenses, and four hit uninhabited areas.

“In response” Israeli fighter jets hit two suspected Hamas weapons manufacturing sites in the central Gaza Strip, the army said.

The airstrikes were followed by new rocket fire from Gaza, and around 6:15 am (0415 GMT), Israeli jets carried out fresh strikes, AFP journalists reported.

No casualties were reported in the first hit bull.

Earlier in Gaza, dozens of demonstrators took to the streets, burning tires.

“We swear to protect and defend the Al-Aqsa mosque,” they chanted.

Palestinian Minister of Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh criticized the Israeli police action inside Al-Aqsa, saying that “there is an urgent need for Palestinian, Arab and international action to the level of brutality.”

Jordan, who administers the mosque, condemned his “storming”, and asked Israeli forces to leave the compound “immediately”.

Saudi Arabia expressed its “categorical rejection” of actions that violate “international principles and norms regarding religious sanctions,” a statement from the foreign ministry said.

Egypt, which has often played the role of mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, condemned the “overt attacks” on worshippers.

“Israel, the power occupied by Egypt, is responsible for this dangerous escalation that could undermine the ceasefire efforts in which Egypt is in contact with its regional and international partners,” said the foreign ministry.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine has been mired in a spiral of violence since the beginning of the year after the most right-wing government in Israel’s history took office at the end of December.

The conflict has claimed the lives of at least 91 Palestinians, 15 Israelis and one Ukrainian since January, according to AFP tallies based on official sources from both sides.

On the Palestinian side, the figures include combatants as well as civilians. On the Israeli side, they include two members of the Arab minority.

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