What’s behind the Ramadan raids at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque?

Israeli forces regularly storm Al-Aqsa Mosque as Palestinian worshippers visit the site during Ramadan.

Aerial view of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound
The Dome of the Rock lies in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a holy site for Muslims and a national symbol for Palestinians. Ultranationalist Jews have increased their attempts to pray on the site in recent years [File Photo: Ilan Rosenberg/Reuters]

Tensions in Jerusalem have flared after Israeli police attacked worshippers in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound overnight during the holy month of Ramadan.

The raids continued until Wednesday morning when Israeli forces were once again seen assaulting and pushing Palestinians out of the compound and preventing them from praying – before Israelis were allowed in under police protection.

What happened in Al-Aqsa compound?

Before dawn on Wednesday, Israeli police stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem, attacking dozens of worshippers in the Qibli Mosque.

Israeli police, who claimed they were responding to “rioting”, beat worshippers with batons and used tear gas and sound bombs to force them out of the prayer halls, according to witnesses.

Videos shared on social media showed women screaming for help as a small fire erupted in the prayer hall.

The Palestinian Red Crescent reported 12 people injured, including three who were taken to hospital. It also said in a statement that Israeli forces prevented its medics from reaching Al-Aqsa.

At least 400 Palestinians were arrested and remain in Israeli custody, according to local officials.

Why would armed security forces enter a mosque?

Israeli police said in a statement that they were forced to enter the compound after “masked agitators” locked themselves inside the mosque with fireworks, sticks and stones.

“When the police entered, stones were thrown at them and fireworks were fired from inside the mosque by a large group of agitators,” the statement said, adding that a police officer was wounded in the leg.

The Israeli police also said that according to a prior agreement with the Al-Aqsa compound authorities, no one was to spend the night inside the compound during the month of Ramadan.

“The police said they ‘peacefully’ tried to convince people to leave but when that didn’t happen they forced their way into Al-Aqsa,” said Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim.

A Palestinian worshipper sweeps debris after a raid by Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque
People clean the Al-Aqsa compound after the raid by Israeli forces in East Jerusalem’s Old City, April 5, 2023 [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

But Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh condemned what happened as “a major crime against the worshippers”, adding that “prayer in Al-Aqsa Mosque is not with the permission of the [Israeli] occupation … it is our right.”

“Al-Aqsa is for the Palestinians and for all Arabs and Muslims, and the raiding of it is a spark of revolution against the occupation,” he added.

INTERACTIVE Al Aqsa-mosque-compound Jerusalem
(Al Jazeera)

Has this happened before?

In recent years, the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound has been an annual flashpoint during Ramadan.

Last year, more than 300 Palestinians were arrested and at least 170 wounded as Israeli forces launched incursions at the compound during the holy month. This followed deadly violence in the occupied West Bank in late March, in which 36 people were killed.

In May 2021, Israeli forces stormed the compound using tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and stun grenades against worshippers during Ramadan. Hundreds of Palestinians were injured, drawing international condemnation.

The developments coincided with a rise in violent incidents against Palestinians by Israeli settlers and forces in East Jerusalem’s neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah as Palestinian families faced the threat of forced eviction from their homes.

Confrontations in Jerusalem and the wider West Bank culminated in an 11-day Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip on May 10, which killed at least 256 Palestinians, including 66 children, and wounded more than 1,900 people, according to the health ministry in Gaza. Thirteen people were killed in Israel, including two children, one Indian woman and two Thai men.

Israeli police detain a Palestinian worshipper at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound
Israeli police detain a Palestinian worshipper at the Al-Aqsa compound in the Old City of Jerusalem during Ramadan [File: Mahmoud Illean/AP Photo]

Why are Palestinians fearful about Al-Aqsa’s future?

The Al-Aqsa compound sits on a plateau in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move not recognised by most in the international community.

For Muslims, the compound hosts Islam’s third-holiest site, Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock, a seventh-century structure believed to be where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

The compound is also where Jews believe the Biblical Jewish temples once stood and is known to them as Temple Mount.

The contested site has been the focal point of the decades-long Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

“Jerusalem is perhaps the number one issue that has the potential of triggering wide-scale violence,” Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, told Al Jazeera last year. “We have seen that in the past,” he said.

Palestinians see Al-Aqsa as one of the few national symbols over which they retain some element of control. They are, however, fearful of a slow encroachment by Jewish groups akin to what has happened at the Ibrahimi Mosque (Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron, where half of the mosque was turned into a synagogue after 1967.

Palestinians are also worried about far-right Israeli movements that want to demolish the Islamic structures in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and build a Jewish temple there.

Muslim worshippers perform Friday prayers outside the Dome of Rock Mosque at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Friday, March 31, 2023.
Muslim worshippers perform Friday prayers outside the Dome of Rock Mosque at Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem during Ramadan [File: Mahmoud Illean/AP Photo]

Why do Jews want to enter Al-Aqsa compound?

In recent years, large groups of nationalist Jews have regularly visited the site with police escorts, something the Palestinians view as a provocation.

Earlier this week, Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir encouraged Jews to visit the site to mark the upcoming Passover holiday, which coincides with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

At the same time, fringe Jewish groups, including the Return to Temple Mount, have offered cash prizes to anyone who goes into Al-Aqsa Mosque and sacrifices a goat – a Jewish religious ritual that is prohibited inside the mosque and that would constitute a further provocation. No sacrifices have been made at the site so far.

On Monday, a leader of one of the groups who was planning a sacrifice in Al-Aqsa was detained by Israeli police.

Palestinians walk out as Israeli security forces take position at the Al-Aqsa compound
Palestinians walk out as Israeli security forces take position at the Al-Aqsa compound [Ammar Awad/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies