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Tension rises in Jerusalem after clashes in al-Aqsa mosque

06 April 2023


People clear the floor in the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on Wednesday after clashes between the police and Palestinian youths

People clear the floor in the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on Wednesday after clashes between the police and Palestinian youths

A VIOLENT stand-off between Israeli police and Palestinians on the Temple Mount early on Wednesday morning has led to an increase of tension in Jerusalem that is threatening to overshadow worship over the Easter weekend.

The fact that Passover falls within Ramadan this year has contributed to a “febrile atmosphere of high tension”, the Dean of St George’s College, the Anglican study and pilgrimage centre in Jerusalem, Canon Richard Sewell, said on Thursday.

“Everybody has been really nervous from weeks before Ramadan, because in the past it has been a time when underlying resentments sometimes come to the surface,” he said.

“Ramadan is a period of intense spiritual discipline, and it makes people more aware of their identity, and so it can sometimes spill out in all sorts of ways. Also they’re attending the mosque — al-Aqsa — a lot more, and when they get prevented from going to pray at the mosque, or things get interrupted, it has a greater significance.”

These tensions came to a head in the early hours of Wednesday morning when Israeli police stormed the al-Aqsa Mosque, considered to be the third-holiest site in Islam.

Young Palestinians had gathered at the mosque in response to rumours that Jewish zealots were planning to kill a goat on the site as a Passover sacrifice. The Times reported that 14 people were arrested on Wednesday, suspected of planning to sacrifice goats on the Temple Mount.

A statement from the Israeli police, reported by The Guardian, described the Palestinian youths as “masked agitators” who had barricaded themselves inside the mosque in violation of an agreement that worshippers would not stay on the site overnight during Ramadan.

A video released by police shows officers in riot gear entering the mosque as fireworks and firecrackers are set off within the building. But mobile-phone footage shared on social media seems to show Israeli police beating people lying on the ground. Hundred were arrested in the raid, and at least 14 Palestinians were injured, according to media reports.

Canon Sewell said that the images of violence were “inflammatory” to the Palestinian population, and that critics who suggest that it was simply the fault of those who had brought some rudimentary weapons, such as stones and fireworks, into the mosque were “not understanding the inherent complexities of the situation”.

After the raid at al-Aqsa, rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, most of which were intercepted. Israeli forces then responded with airstrikes on Hamas training camps, according to reports in the Guardian. No casualties were reported on either side.

On Wednesday evening, police again entered al-Aqsa and forced hundred of young Palestinians to leave the site. Young men have now been banned from attending the mosque, Canon Sewell said, and were instead praying on the streets of the city.

“It was a very moving scene to see rows of hundreds of men just praying on the pavement or in the middle of the road, because they couldn’t go into Al Aqsa,” Canon Sewell said; but he remarked that it “creates this deep, deep resentment, that their desire simply to go and worship, to pray, has been prevented”.

The Times reports that on Thursday afternoon at least 30 rockets were fired towards Israel from Lebanon, which were intercepted by Israel’s missile-defence system. No group has yet claimed responsibility, but Canon Sewell was in no doubt that the attempted strikes were “in solidarity with Muslims and their freedom to worship at al-Aqsa”.

“So far Israel has been quite restrained in not firing back, but it won’t take much, particularly for this government, who are very aggressive and right-wing, to go: ‘Right, that’s it, we’ve had enough, we’re just going to do a load of bombing in Gaza or in South Lebanon,’ and you’re in a further, serious escalation.”

In the spring of 2021, clashes at the al-Aqsa Mosque led to an escalation of the conflict between Israeli forces and Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank (News, 14 May 2021). Almost 300 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, as well as 15 Israelis.

As Christians in Jerusalem prepare to mark Easter, Canon Sewell feared that the troubled atmosphere would overshadow worship. “We feel impacted by it emotionally, when we know that people are being battered and beaten. Spiritually and emotionally you are affected by it.”

He said that “when Muslims are under attack at al-Aqsa, most Christian Palestinians will feel for them and will feel the pain. It does feel, to some degree, like an attack on the Christian community, too, because it’s a Palestinian solidarity issue.”

None the less, despite the “dark cloud” hanging over the Easter weekend, Canon Sewell counselled hope and fortitude. “It’s sometimes a little bit elusive, but at this time, perhaps more than any time, we are given to hope, and we have to draw very deeply from those reserves of our spiritual sustenance, as Muslims do too in Ramadan.”

At the start of February, the Archbishop of Canterbury joined Christian leaders in Jerusalem in calling for an end to escalating violence (News, 3 February).

Archbishop Welby expressed his support for a statement from the Archbishops of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran Churches which called on “all parties to reverence each other’s religious faith and to show respect to all holy sites and places of worship”.

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