JERUSALEM (Reuters) -At least 152 Palestinians were injured in clashes with Israeli riot police inside Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound on Friday, the latest outbreak in a recent upsurge of violence that has raised fears of a slide back to wider conflict.
Most of the Palestinian injuries were incurred from rubber bullets, stun grenades and beatings with police batons, the Palestine Red Crescent said, at the most sensitive site in the generations-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israeli security forces have been on high alert after a series of deadly Arab street attacks throughout the country over the past two weeks. Confrontations at the Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem’s walled Old City pose the risk of a relapse into a broader conflagration like last year’s Gaza war.
The Al-Aqsa compound sits atop the Old City plateau of East Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, and is known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, or The Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as Temple Mount.
Tensions this year have been heightened in part by Ramadan coinciding with the Jewish celebration of Passover.
In a statement, Israeli police said hundreds of Palestinians hurled firecrackers and stones at their forces and toward the nearby Jewish prayer area of the Western Wall in the Old City after Ramadan morning prayers.
It said police then entered the Al-Aqsa compound to “disperse and push back (the crowd and) enable the rest of the worshippers to leave the place safely.” adding that three officers were injured in the clashes.
Police detained hundreds of Palestinians, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a tweet.
“We are working to restore calm, on the Temple Mount and across Israel. Alongside that, we are preparing for any scenario and the security forces are ready for any task,” Bennett said.
Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations stepped up their mediation between Palestinian factions – led by the Islamist group Hamas, which runs Gaza – and Israel in a bid to prevent further escalation of violence, a Palestinian official told Reuters.
Hamas demanded that Israel frees nearly 500 people it had detained on Friday, stop “provocative visits” to Al-Aqsa mosque by Jewish groups, and end military incursions into West Bank cities.
In a sign of lowering tensions, Israel released all but 100 of those detained, Palestinians said.
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry, referring to the violence in the holy compound, said it “holds Israel fully and directly responsible for this crime and its consequences.”
The international community should intervene immediately to “stop Israeli aggression against Al-Aqsa mosque and prevent things from going out of control,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesperson for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who governs self-ruled areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Jordan, whose Hashemite monarchy is the custodian of Muslim and Christian sanctuaries in East Jerusalem, condemned the Israeli police raid into the compound as “a flagrant violation”.
Israel recognized the Hashemite role as custodian of Al-Aqsa as part of the two countries’ 1994 peace treaty, and maintains overall security control over the site.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said tensions should be eased. “We call on all sides to exercise restraint, avoid provocative actions and rhetoric, and preserve the historic status quo on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount,” he said in a statement.
Tor Wennesland, the U.N. special envoy for Middle East peacemaking, urged all sides “to help calm the situation, avoid spreading inflammatory rhetoric and speak up against those seeking to escalate the situation”.
Last year, there were nightly clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police during the Muslim fasting month. Threats of Palestinian displacement in East Jerusalem and police raids at Al-Aqsa helped ignite an 11-day Israel-Gaza war that killed more than 250 Palestinians in Gaza and 13 people in Israel.
Since last month, Israeli forces have killed 29 Palestinians in the course of carrying out raids in the West Bank after Palestinian assailants killed 14 Israelis in a string of attacks in Israeli cities.
Al-Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam and also revered by Jews as the location of two ancient temples.
Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its eternal capital. Palestinians seek to make East Jerusalem, including its Muslim, Christian and Jewish holy sites, the capital of a future state.
(Reporting by Sinan Abu Mayzer, Ammar Awad and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Henriette Chacar in Jaffa; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Sandra Maler)