Middle East Eye / April 5, 2023
Dozens of armed officers fired tear gas and stun grenades as worshippers were performing the Ramadan Taraweeh night prayer.
Israeli forces stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem on Wednesday for the second successive night during Ramadan, after brutally assaulting worshippers at the site less than 24 hours earlier.
Dozens of armed Israeli officers entered the courtyards of the mosque while nearly 20,000 Palestinian worshippers were still performing the Ramadan Taraweeh night prayer.
Israeli forces fired rubber-coated bullets, tear gas and stun grenades at worshippers just before the prayer ended to disperse them and clear the mosque, eyewitness Firas al-Dibbs told Middle East Eye.
They also chased after people, beating them with batons and wounding some.
“They want to create a new reality. They want to empty Al-Aqsa Mosque of Palestinians,” Al-Dibbs told MEE. “What happened, especially yesterday, was catastrophic. The scale of violence was shocking.”
A mosque volunteer, who preferred to remain anonymous, told MEE that the mosque had been almost completely emptied of Palestinians within an hour.
The raid on Wednesday started slightly earlier than the previous one on Tuesday, apparently in an attempt by Israeli forces to prevent worshippers from locking themselves inside Al-Qibli prayer hall.
Last night, hundreds of Palestinians barricaded themselves inside Al-Qibli hall – the building with the silver dome – to perform the contemplative prayer of Itikaf and avoid attempts by police to remove them.
Itikaf is a non-mandatory religious practice that is common during Ramadan, when worshippers stay inside mosques overnight to pray, reflect and recite the Quran.
Israeli forces later stormed Al-Qibli Mosque and fired stun grenades and teargas into the thousand-year-old building, before they threw Palestinians to the ground, stomped on them, and bound their hands behind their backs. At least 400 people were arrested.
In Wednesday’s raid, police also targeted Al-Qibli prayer hall and cleared it.
Earlier in the day, Israeli police limited the number of Palestinians allowed to enter the mosque, bringing the number of those who were able to attend the Taraweeh prayer down from 80,000 people on Tuesday to 20,000, according to Palestinian media.
The raids come ahead of planned mass incursions into Al-Aqsa Mosque by Jewish settlers set to start on Thursday and last a week to mark the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Israeli forces regularly empty the mosque of Palestinians outside the five Muslim prayers, especially overnight and after dawn prayers to ensure a smooth incursion of Israeli settlers that takes place daily around 7:30 am local time.
Temple Movement groups, which facilitate the settler incursions and advocate for the destruction of Al-Aqsa, have called for mass stormings throughout the week-long Passover holiday.
Al-Aqsa Mosque is an Islamic site where unsolicited visits, prayers and rituals by non-Muslims are forbidden, according to decades-long international agreements.
Israeli groups, in coordination with authorities, have long violated the delicate arrangement and facilitated raids of the site and performed prayers and religious rituals.
Najeh Bkeirat, the deputy director of the Islamic Waqf at Al-Aqsa Mosque, said the conduct of police at Al-Aqsa and in Jerusalem in recent days and weeks suggests that this escalation was premeditated.
“The Israeli government seems to have made a decision this year to empty Palestinians from al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem. This is very evident,” he said.
Israeli forces have arrested more than 1,000 Palestinians from Jerusalem this year and issued orders barring hundreds of people from entering Al-Aqsa, according to Palestinian media. The arrests and bans have intensified in recent days.
“They want only Jews in the city. They don’t want Palestinians and Muslims here,” said Bkeirat.
By allocating specific times for when Palestinians are allowed at Al-Aqsa Mosque, and opening the site for settlers to visit and pray, Palestinians fear the groundwork is being laid to divide the mosque between Muslims and Jews, similar to how the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron/Al-Khalil was divided in the 1990s.
Israel’s control of East Jerusalem, including the Old City, violates several principles of international law, which stipulates that an occupying power has no sovereignty in the territory it occupies and cannot make any permanent changes there.
“The occupation also wants to please the far-right with these scenes and distract the Israeli public from the internal political crisis they are facing,” Bkeirat added.
“I think we’re heading towards more escalation and the Israeli government is responsible.”
Tensions grow out of Jerusalem
As Israeli forces raided Al-Aqsa on Wednesday, tensions soared in Jerusalem and beyond.
Meanwhile, Israeli police violently dispersed protests held by Palestinian citizens of Israel in Haifa, Umm al-Fahm, the Galilee region and other cities.
Police fired tear gas and assaulted protesters in the demonstrations, arresting five people from Umm al-Fahm and one protester from Haifa.
Israeli commentators have said the atmosphere is similar to that which preceded the 2021 May riots, when unrest rocked binational Jewish-Palestinian cities inside Israel amid attacks by police and mobs on Palestinians protesting the Israeli bombing of Gaza and attacks on Al-Aqsa.
In the occupied West Bank, marches and confrontations with Israeli troops renewed for another night in several towns.
Tuesday’s raid sparked anger in various cities and was followed by shootings at Israeli targets in Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarm, Hebron/Al-Khalil, Ramallah, and Jericho/Ariha, leaving at least one Israeli soldier wounded.
In the Gaza Strip, rockets were fired towards Israel and met with air strikes in the besieged Strip early on Wednesday.
Two more rockets were fired in the evening, with one landing inside Israel. No casualties were reported.
Lubna Masarwa is a journalist and Middle East Eye’s Palestine and Israel bureau chief, based in Jerusalem