Israeli security officials said on Wednesday evening that they would ultimately have to force their way into al-Aqsa mosque, atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, because hundreds of young Palestinian men are now routinely stockpiling large quantities of rocks and slabs of stone there to attack security forces.
The unnamed officials, quoted by Israel’s Channel 2 news, were speaking hours after dozens of Palestinian protesters and an Israeli policeman were wounded on the Mount when clashes broke out soon after the holy site was opened to Jewish visitors on Wednesday morning.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Palestinians threw “stones and firecrackers” at police when they opened the walled compound’s gates.
Police responded with stun grenades, Rosenfeld said, and closed the complex to the Jewish visitors after a small number had toured the site.
An AFP correspondent at the scene said dozens of Palestinians were wounded by rubber-coated bullets and stun grenade canisters, and were staying inside the al-Aqsa mosque out of fear they would be arrested when leaving.
However, the Israeli security officials said young Palestinian men were being allowed to hide out in the mosque by the authorities from the Waqf, or Muslim Trust, that administers the site, and that they used the holy place as a stronghold for what have now become routine attacks on Israeli security forces.
The officials were quoted saying that, sooner or later, there would be “no choice but to storm” the mosque. At the same time, they acknowledged that this is precisely what the Palestinian protesters hope will happen, since the sight of armed Israeli security personnel forcing their way into the third holiest site in Islam could prompt a surge in anti-Israeli protests throughout the Arab world.
Clashes often erupt at the site. Jews typically pray below, at the Western Wall, but tensions have grown lately with an increased number of Jews arriving to pray at the Temple Mount as well. Israel permits Jews to ascend to the Temple Mount for visits, but they are barred from praying at the site. These visits often stoke rumors that Israel is preparing to take over the site.
Sheikh Azzam Tamimi, head of the Waqf, said worshippers had barricaded themselves inside the al-Aqsa Mosque “to defend” the site from Jewish groups. Israeli TV stations showed footage of police running across the compound in riot gear with piles of stones strewn on the ground. The entrance to the mosque was barricaded with furniture, as protesters inside threw objects at police. Tamimi said 30 people suffered from tear gas inhalation or had been struck by rubber-coated bullets. None of the injuries appeared to be serious.
Jordan on Wednesday urged the UN Security Council to end Israeli “escalation” at the compound.
“Legal, humanitarian and ethical duties of the UN Security Council and the international community require that they stop Israeli escalation and violations committed by Jewish radicals at Al-Aqsa,” Information Minister Mohammad Momani told the state-run Petra news agency.
“Such actions as well as Israel’s insistence on supporting radical groups provoke Muslims around the world, create more instability in the region and violate international laws.”
Jews believe the compound, the holiest place in Judaism, is the site where the two biblical Jewish Temples stood — and where religious Jews pray a third Temple will one day be built. The site is so holy that Jews have traditionally refrained from praying on the hilltop, but attitudes among some Orthodox Jews have been evolving and there has been growing demand to allow Jews to pray there freely as well.
A visit by then opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in September 2000 was closely followed by the outbreak of the second intifada, marked by years of Palestinian suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks on Israeli targets.
Palestinian Authority officials, and other Arab leaders, frequently accuse Israel of taking provocative actions at the site. Palestinian riots on the Temple Mount have become increasingly frequent in recent weeks.
Jordan, which under its 1994 peace treaty with Israel is the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, on Wednesday urged the UN Security Council to end Israeli “escalation” at the site.
On Sunday, riot police were called in to quell a violent protest at the Temple Mount’s Mughrabi Gate as the site opened to visitors in the morning.
One policeman was lightly injured and law enforcement officers entered the al-Aqsa mosque compound and used stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the rioters.
Five Jewish Israelis were arrested Monday after allegedly attempting to sacrifice a goat at the Temple Mount in honor of the Passover holiday.
AP and AFP contributed to this report.