A day after some of the worst violence in Jerusalem for years saw 200 Palestinians and 17 Israeli police officers wounded, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi announced on Saturday that troop levels would be bolstered.
The announcement came after Defense Minister Benny Gantz held an assessment of the security situation with senior officials from the military, police and Shin Bet.
At the end of the meeting, the IDF said there would be a reinforcement of troop numbers as part of preparations for a potential escalation.
“Extremists on both sides cannot be allowed to cause an escalation of the situation,” Gantz said in a statement. “Israel will continue to act to preserve freedom of worship at the Temple Mount and at the same time not allow terror to raise its head or harm public order.”
Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai also held a “special” security assessment in light of the recent tensions in Jerusalem.
A police statement said Shabtai ordered commanders, in particular in the Jerusalem area, to “significantly” boost their forces ahead of the most sacred night of Ramadan on Saturday evening and “another series of expected events over the coming days.” This apparently was referring to Jerusalem Day, a national holiday that begins Sunday night, in which Israel celebrates the unification of Jerusalem and religious nationalists hold parades and other celebrations in the city.
“I stress here that the right to protest will be preserved but rioting will be answered firmly and with zero tolerance. I call on everyone to act with responsibility and restraint,” Shabtai was quoted saying in the statement.
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Arab Israelis were expected to hold mass protests on Saturday in the wake of the violence in Jerusalem on Friday night.
Saturday saw at least six fires in southern Israel caused by balloons carrying incendiary devices. There were no reports of any injuries or danger to nearby towns.
The demonstrations were set to be held amid heightened tensions in the wake of Friday’s clashes in Jerusalem between Palestinians and the Israel Police.
There were widespread clashes and riots in the Al-Aqsa compound following prayers held there on the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Footage from the scene showed pitched battles, with Palestinians throwing chairs, shoes, rocks and bottles and shooting fireworks, and police responding with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets.
Security forces arrested at least 13 people in East Jerusalem on Saturday morning on suspicion of involvement in the riots, the Palestinian Wafa news site reported.
Initial reports indicated further arrests were carried out in the afternoon. A Jerusalem police spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
The Hamas terror group’s official media outlet said Gaza-based groups were calling for demonstrations near the border fence with Israel on Saturday in protest of Israeli actions in Jerusalem.
According to the Ynet news site, it was thought that protestors will confront IDF troops at the border demonstrations, with comparisons made to the violent March of the Return protests.
A report in the Palestinian Al-Quds newspaper, cited by the Kan public broadcaster, said that Palestinian factions in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip were planning to reactivate the so-called “nightly confusion units” which riot along the security fence.
The riot units would be in addition to the uptick in balloon-borne incendiary devices launched from the Strip — recent days have seen over a dozen fires sparked in the Gaza border area.
Hamas has rejected a message sent by Israel via Egyptian mediators calling to prevent a further escalation of violence and a potential deterioration into a wide-ranging conflict, a Lebanese newspaper reported on Saturday.
According to the report, Hamas responded that “events on the ground” showed that Israel does not wish for a de-escalation and that therefore a truce between the sides was unlikely in the near future.
Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh said Friday that Israel would “pay a price” for the clashes at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites. The hilltop on which it sits is the holiest place in the world for Jews as the site of the two biblical temples — making it a flashpoint for nationalist sentiment and violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Islamic Jihad, a terror group that often fires rockets from Gaza into Israeli territory, also threatened Israel over the Al-Aqsa clashes.
Additionally, the Arab High Follow-Up Committee, a body that represents Arab Israelis, called for protests in Arab towns and cities across the country in response to the violence.
The Palestinian Red Crescent reported that at least 205 Palestinians were wounded in clashes throughout Jerusalem on Friday, mostly around the Temple Mount and by Damascus Gate. Eighty-eight Palestinians were hospitalized, mostly for injuries with rubber-coated steel bullets, it said.
Around half of the Israeli injured were hospitalized, with one officer in moderate condition after being struck in the head with a rock.
Anger grew on Saturday with the circulation of a video in which a stun grenade is seen detonating inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque, after it was apparently launched into the building by Israeli security forces.
תיעוד חריג: המשטרה יורה רימון הלם *בתוך* המסגד המקורה במסגד אל-אקצא. pic.twitter.com/HJva6y96gM
— סולימאן מסוודה سليمان مسودة (@SuleimanMas1) May 7, 2021
In a second video, apparently filmed earlier on Friday, a Border Police officer was seen throwing a stun grenade toward a crowd that included children.
תיעוד מהערב בעיר העתיקה: שוטר זורק רימון הלם לעבר ילדים ונשים. pic.twitter.com/lXI9iipKeL
— סולימאן מסוודה سليمان مسودة (@SuleimanMas1) May 7, 2021
Calls for calm
The United States said Saturday it was “extremely concerned” by the events in Jerusalem, calling on officials from all sides to deescalate the tensions.
“It is absolutely critical that all sides exercise restraint, refrain from provocative actions and rhetoric, and preserve the historic status quo on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount – in word and in practice,” the State Department said in a statement. “Leaders across the spectrum must denounce all violent acts.”
Meanwhile the Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Saturday, saying that “Israel must stop all measures that harm the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.”
The ministry added that “building new settlements or expanding existing ones, expropriating land or deporting Palestinians — this is a violation of international law and reduces the chance of reaching a two-state solution,” the Ynet news site reported.
Tensions have been rising across Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza for the past several weeks.
Earlier Friday, three Palestinian gunmen opened fire on Border Police troops in the northern West Bank. Two of them were killed in the firefight and a third was critically injured. Israeli military officials said the three were en route to carry out a “major” terrorist attack on civilians inside Israel, with reports saying they were heading for Jerusalem.
Israeli yeshiva student Yehuda Guetta was shot in a Palestinian terror attack in the West Bank on Sunday before he died of his wounds on Wednesday night.
Hours later, Israeli security forces arrested a suspect in his killing.
The same evening, 16-year-old Palestinian teenager Said Odeh was shot and killed by Israeli forces who said he was throwing Molotov cocktails at troops.
In recent days, Palestinians have held demonstrations in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Over 70 Palestinian residents are threatened with eviction and could be replaced by right-wing Jewish nationalists, in a legal battle being waged in the courts.
An Israeli court has ordered the families to leave, as the property was owned by a Jewish religious association before 1948. A 1970 Israeli law allows Jews to reclaim property in East Jerusalem from before it fell into Jordanian hands; no similar law exists for Palestinians.
Palestinians and their supporters have protested the pending evictions every night for the past week. Police have sought to disperse the protests with stun grenades and water cannons, leading to injuries and arrests.
The families have asked the Israeli Supreme Court to consider an appeal, which it is scheduled to do on Monday.
Additionally, at the beginning of Ramadan, Palestinians repeatedly clashed with Israeli police in Jerusalem in protest of restrictions at the Damascus Gate area. Some videos also circulated on Palestinian social media showing young Arab men attacking Ultra-Orthodox passersby.
In response, hundreds of Jewish extremists marched through Jerusalem’s downtown, chanting “Death to Arabs.” Others randomly attacked Palestinians across the city. This then led to severe clashes between police, Jews and Arabs in the city.
There were also growing fears that tensions in Jerusalem could come to a head on Saturday night, Laylat al-Qadr, the most sacred night in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Worshipers will gather for nighttime prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Sunday night is the start of Jerusalem Day, a national holiday in which Israel celebrates the unification of Jerusalem and religious nationalists hold parades and other celebrations in the city.