Israeli police arrested 16 Palestinians Sunday as they clashed with demonstrators at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, a sensitive holy site that is frequently the scene of tensions.
“This morning, after the site was opened for visitors and tourists, the suspects threw rocks at the police, wounding two of them,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP.
After police dispersed the crowd with sound grenades the demonstrators took shelter in the Al-Aqsa mosque, which police are not allowed to enter, he said.
A police statement later said 16 “Arab rioters” had been arrested.
The mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City — built on the holiest site in Judaism and considered the third holiest in Islam — has over the past week seen clashes between Muslim protesters and Israeli police.
Dozens of Palestinians were wounded Wednesday in clashes with police after Jewish visitors were allowed onto the compound, which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount — the site where the biblical first and second temples stood.
Palestinians have long feared that Israel would take over the site, which is under Jordanian custodianship, amid calls from Jewish extremists for the temple to be rebuilt.
Non-Muslims are allowed to visit the site but Jews are barred from praying there. Hardline Jews frequently try to defy the ban, often igniting clashes between rock-throwing Palestinians and police.
Sunday’s clashes came as tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists flocked to Jerusalem for the Christian Easter holiday and the week-long Jewish Passover.
Fearing unrest, Israeli police tightened restrictions on access to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, limiting entrance to men over the age of 50 and women.
On Saturday UN Middle East peace envoy Robert Serry said he and other diplomats had joined an Easter procession at the invitation of Jerusalem’s Palestinian Christian community but were stopped at a security checkpoint.
He said Israeli police refused to allow the group to proceed despite earlier assurances of unhindered access, leading to a “precarious standoff” in which an angry crowd pushed their way through.
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor defended the police, calling Serry’s statement “an odd communique on a non-event” and “a display of poor judgement”.
Official Palestinian news agency Wafa on Sunday quoted the Palestinian foreign ministry lambasting the Israeli actions as contrary to international conventions on freedom of worship.
“The Palestinian foreign ministry on condemned on Sunday Israeli authorities forbidding Christian and Muslim worshippers from reaching their holy places which is a violation of the Geneva conventions,” it said.
“These (Israeli) regulations can be only be described as fascist and racist.”
At Sunday’s Easter mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe that Christ was crucified and then rose from the dead, Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal spoke of “hardship and persecution” suffered by Christians.
“Nevertheless,” said Twal, the Holy Land’s senior Roman Catholic prelate, “We can be sure of the success of our mission, even here, however difficult that may be in this strife-torn Holy Land.”