There have been violent scenes as Israeli police raided the al-Aqsa mosque in occupied East Jerusalem, saying “agitators” had barricaded themselves and worshippers inside.
Palestinians said stun grenades and rubber bullets were used in the pre-dawn raid and that 50 people were hurt.
Police said stones were thrown and fireworks fired at them in the mosque.
Militants in the Gaza Strip later fired rockets at Israel and its military carried out air strikes in response.
The latest violence comes just ahead of an overlap between the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish Passover holiday.
The al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, is located on a hilltop complex known by Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) and by Jews as the Temple Mount. Jews revere it as the location of two Biblical Temples and it is the holiest site in Judaism.
On Tuesday, Palestinians barricaded themselves in the mosque after the evening Ramadan prayer, amid reports that Jewish extremists wanted to try to sacrifice a goat at the site for Passover – as Jews did in Biblical times before the Romans destroyed their temple there.
Israeli police and religious authorities have said they would not allow such an act to take place. Israeli police said in a statement that “several law-breaking youths and masked agitators” fortified the mosque “in order to disrupt public order and desecrate the mosque”.
“After many and prolonged attempts to get them out by talking to no avail, police forces were forced to enter the compound in order to get them out with the intentions to allow the Fajr [dawn] prayer and to prevent a violent disturbance,” it added. “When the police entered, stones were thrown at them and fireworks were fired from inside the mosque by a large group of agitators.”
Video released by the police showed fireworks exploding and lighting up the prayer hall as heavily armed officers in riot gear moved in. Other footage posted on social media appeared to show an officer using a rifle butt and others using sticks to beat Palestinians on the floor amid shouts and screams. Pictures of the aftermath showed overturned furniture and prayer mats scattered across the carpet.
The Palestinian Red Crescent reported that 50 Palestinians were injured. It also said Israeli forces prevented its medics from reaching the mosque, though this has not been confirmed. Some of the Palestinians still in Israeli custody are in a critical condition, according to their lawyer.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that the police “had to act to restore order”. “Israel is committed to maintaining freedom of worship, free access to all religions and the status quo on the Temple Mount, and will not allow violent extremists to change this,” he said.
But the Islamic Waqf, which administers the site, described the police’s actions as a “a flagrant violation of the identity and function of the mosque as a place of worship for Muslims alone”.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s spokesman also condemned the raid, describing it as an attack on Muslim worshippers. “We warn the Occupation [Israel] not to cross the red lines in the holy places, which will lead to the big explosion,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh said.
The leader of the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, called the incident “an unprecedented crime” and warned Israel that there would be “consequences”.
UN Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland said he was “appalled by the images of violence” inside the al-Aqsa mosque and urged political, religious and community leaders on all sides to “reject incitement, inflammatory rhetoric, and provocative actions”.
Following the clashes, Israeli media reported that militants fired 16 rockets from Gaza, triggering sirens in communities in southern Israel. One rocket hit a factory near the city of Sderot and the rest were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system or landed in open areas, they said.
No group has so far said it was behind the rocket fire, but it is believed that Hamas approved the launches.
The Israeli military said its aircraft struck weapon manufacturing sites and a storage site belonging to Hamas in response, as well as a military compound used for training. Israeli tanks also struck military posts along the Israel-Gaza border fence. There were no reports of casualties on either side.
Israel’s far-right National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, tweeted that the rocket fire required a “response beyond bombing dunes and unmanned sites”.
Tensions between Israel and Palestinians which escalated into violence at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in May 2021 prompted Hamas to fire rockets towards Jerusalem, triggering an 11-day conflict with Israel.