Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday blamed “Palestinian extremists” for ongoing clashes at Jerusalem’s volatile Al-Aqsa mosque compound, hours after police surrounded dozens of rioters holed up at the hotly contested holy site. The protesters were demonstrating against Orthodox Jews entering the esplanade at the site, which is considered the third-holiest site in Islam and the holiest for Jews, as it was the location of two ancient Jewish temples.
“Israel is committed to maintaining the status quo exactly as it’s been for many decades,” Netanyahu said during a meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
“What we’re seeing is Palestinian extremists who are instigating violence through incitement.”
Earlier in the day Ban said he was “deeply concerned by repeated provocations at the holy sites in Jerusalem,” which “inflame tensions and must stop.”
The Al-Aqsa mosque was surrounded early Monday by Israeli police forces, who entered the plaza atop the Temple Mount before 7 a.m. after receiving information that said Palestinian activists had gathered stones and set barbed wire obstacles in preparation for planned attacks against Jewish visitors to the site.
Upon entering the site, police were met with rocks, firebombs and fireworks, which were hurled at them by the protesters, Israel Radio reported. The rioters were then pushed back into the mosque.
Police removed multiple obstacles at the site, including stretches of barbed wire, and it was finally opened to non-Muslim visitors at 7:30 a.m.
On Sunday, the Temple Mount was closed to Jews, and streets were closed off around the Old City to vehicular traffic, as tens of thousands of Jewish worshipers gathered at the Western Wall for holiday prayers.
At the same time, several protesters holed themselves up in the Al-Aqsa Mosque after being chased by police. Police said flammable material was sprayed at several officers and that as a result, a fire broke out at the site.
Palestinian sources said dozens of Palestinians were injured in the Sunday clashes, while police reported five policemen were lightly injured.
The Sunday closure came on the heels of clashes between police and masked rioters at the Temple Mount last Wednesday morning before the start of the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Many Jews have the custom of visiting the Temple Mount on holiday eves.
The Mughrabi Gate, the lone entrance for non-Muslims to enter the compound, has been the site of frequent clashes between Israeli security forces and Muslim worshipers.
The clashes come amid an uptick in inter-ethnic violence in Jerusalem over the past several months, with incidents of East Jerusalem rioters hurling stones and Molotov cocktails and using fireworks as a weapon.
AFP contributed to this report.