by Joseph Federman
JERUSALEM ( Associated Press) — Nearly 2,000 Jewish pilgrims visited Jerusalem’s most vulnerable holy site early Sunday before a nationalist parade through the old city, prompting Palestinians to barricade inside the Al Aqsa Mosque and attack visitors and nearby Israeli police. of stones and fireworks.
About 3,000 Israeli police were deployed throughout the city ahead of Sunday’s march, with flag-waving Israeli nationalists planning to walk through the Old City’s main Palestinian street.
Israel says the march is to celebrate Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, including the Old City, in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in a move that is not recognized internationally, and it claims the entire city as its capital.
But the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, see the march as a provocation. Last year, the parade helped start an 11-day war between Israel and Gaza militants.
According to Israeli police, before the march, about 1,800 Jewish pilgrims visited the disputed mountain complex where the Al-Aqsa Mosque is located.
Al Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam and serves as a powerful symbol for the Palestinians. The complex is also the holiest site for Jews, who call it Temple Mount and regard it as the home of biblical temples. Competing claims to the site are at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have led to several rounds of violence.
Dozens of Palestinians locked themselves inside the mosque early on Sunday and began throwing objects and fireworks when Jewish visitors arrived.
Among the visitors was Itamar Ben-Gavir, the leader of a small ultranationalist opposition party and a follower of the late racist rabbi, Mir Kahane, who entered with dozens of supporters under heavy police guard.
The Palestinians shouted “God is great” as Ben-Gavir, accompanied by the Israeli police, shouted “Jewish people live”. Police said they closed the mosque’s gates and said they had made several arrests. There were no reports of injuries.
Without explanation, Israeli police took the rare step of preventing Palestinian journalists, including an Associated Press photographer, from entering the compound.
Police also said that dozens of visitors to one of the Jewish groups “violated visitation rules.” It said the group was disbanded and some people were detained.
The police statement did not give further details. But under a system long known as the “status quo,” Jewish visitors to the complex are not allowed to pray. In recent years, however, the number of Jewish visitors has increased significantly, including some who have been seen praying silently.
Such scenes have given rise to Palestinian fears that Israel is plotting to annex or divide the region. Israel denies such claims, saying it remains committed to the status quo.
Israel’s national police chief, Kobi Shabtai, said his army was prepared for “every scenario” and had taken “immediate and professional” action if needed.
“We will not allow any instigator or rioters to sabotage today’s incidents and disrupt law and order,” he said. By noon, the tour had temporarily stopped, and the situation had calmed down.
Jordan condemned Ben-Gavir’s visit to the site and warned that a “provocative and moving march” could make things worse. Jordan controlled East Jerusalem until its annexation by Israel in 1967 and remains a custodian of Muslim holy sites.
Sunday’s March comes at a time of rising tension. Israeli police have repeatedly encountered Palestinian protesters throwing stones at the disputed compound in recent months, often with rubber bullets and stun grenades.
At the same time, some 19 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian bombers in Israel and the occupied West Bank in recent weeks, while more than 35 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli military operations in the occupied West Bank. Many of those killed were Palestinian terrorists, but many civilians were among those killed, including Shirin Abu Aqleh, a well-known correspondent for the Al Jazeera satellite channel.
Jerusalem police were internationally criticized for beating mourners at the funeral of Abu Aqleh two weeks ago.