ARAB-ISRAELI TENSIONS

Why are Israeli police and Muslim worshippers clashing at Al-Aqsa?

Israeli security forces advance towards Palestinian protesters at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem.
Israeli security forces advance towards Palestinian protesters at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. Ahmad GHARABLI AFP

The Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem has been the scene of clashes between Israeli police and Muslim worshippers for the past four days. The unrest began as Muslims flocked there for the last Friday prayers of Ramadan. The compound in the walled Old City is a highly sensitive site sacred in both Islam and Judaism.

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More than 300 people were injured on Monday in renewed clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police in Jerusalem.

Palestinians hurled rocks at Israeli officers who fired rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas on the esplanade of the revered Al-Aqsa mosque.

The violence is the worst in Jerusalem since 2017, and is fuelled by a long-running bid by Jewish settlers to take over nearby Palestinian homes in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

The UN Security Council is to meet at Tunisia's request later Monday to discuss the unrest that has escalated since last Friday.

Hearing on disputed settlement postponed

A court hearing scheduled for Monday on Sheikh Jarrah, the flashpoint east Jerusalem neighbourhood at the centre of the settlement dispute, has meanwhile been postponed.

Much of the recent violence stems from a long-running legal effort by Jewish settler groups to evict several Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah.

A lower court ruling this year backing the settlers' decades-old claim to the plots infuriated Palestinians.

A Supreme Court hearing on a Palestinian appeal had been set for Monday, but the justice ministry said Sunday that in light of "all the circumstances" it would delay the hearing.

Sacred quarter of a deeply divided city

Israel considers all of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. The Palestinians want the eastern sector of the divided city to be recognised as the capital of their future state.

The Al-Aqsa mosque compound occupies a 35-acre rectangular esplanade at the southeast corner of the Old City. The area was seized by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, along with the rest of east Jerusalem which was later annexed in a move which has never been internationally recognised.

Known to Muslims as Al-Haram al-Sharif, the compound houses the famous golden Dome of the Rock shrine and the Al-Aqsa mosque. It is the third-holiest site in Islam after the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, both in Saudi Arabia.

The esplanade is also revered as the holiest site in Judaism because it housed both the First and Second Temples. In Hebrew, it is referred to as Har HaBayit -- the Temple Mount.

Jews are allowed to visit the compound, but are forbidden from praying there for fear of sparking tensions with Muslim worshippers.

Long history of violent clashes

 In 1996, an Israeli decision to open a new entrance to the west of the plaza sparked clashes that left more than 80 people dead in three days.

And a controversial visit to the plaza in September 2000 by then right-wing opposition leader Ariel Sharon was one of the main triggers for the second Palestinian intifada, which lasted from 2000 to 2005.

In July 2017, the compound was temporarily closed after three Arab Israelis opened fire at Israeli police near the site, killing two of them, before fleeing into the sacred compound, where they were shot dead by security forces.

In 2020 access to the compound was closed to the public during the month of Ramadan due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the reopening was subject to strict sanitary conditions with a limit on the number of worshippers.

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