Hundreds of hardline Israelis stormed East Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound and several were arrested during a Jewish religious festival on Sunday, according to Anadolu Agency.
Around 300 Jews visited the flashpoint compound, according to Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, who said seven were arrested for chanting or deviating from a route set by the police.
According to Palestinian local sources, over 180 settlers toured the Aqsa Mosque’s courtyards in different groups while hundreds were still waiting in the morning to enter the holy site through al-Maghariba Gate under police escort. Special police troops and senior officers were already deployed in different areas of the Mosque to provide protection for the settlers.
Jerusalem-based Palestinian activist group Wadi Hilweh Information Center posted pictures on social media of Jews praying outside the gates of the compound.
For Muslims, Al-Aqsa represents the world’s third holiest site. Jews, for their part, refer to the area as the “Temple Mount,” claiming it was the site of two Jewish temples in ancient times.
Worship inside the compound is only allowed for Muslims under a delicate balance of prayer and visiting rights known as the status quo, which Palestinian Muslims frequently accuse hardline Israeli groups and the government of flouting.
While Palestinians believe the status quo limits the number of Jewish visitors allowed at the mosque, Israeli police often allow entry to and escort large groups, especially during Jewish religious festivals.
Meanwhile, Palestinian worshipers were asked to hand over their ID cards to policemen at all gates and entrances leading to the Mosque before allowing them in. In a related incident, Israeli policemen escorted one of the settlers out of the Islamic holy site after one of the mosque guards stopped him from performing rituals.
They also expelled two Palestinian young men after they chanted religious slogans in protest at the desecration of the Mosque. As part of their restrictions on the entry of Muslims to the holy place today, the Israeli police also closed several gates of the Aqsa Mosque. During the last few days, extremist Jewish groups had embarked on inciting their communities to participate in Sunday’s break-ins at the Aqsa Mosque.
The increased number of Jewish visitors on Sunday was because of the Tisha B’av festival, which marks the destruction of Jewish temples that most Jews believe were once located at the current-day site of the mosque.
A religious ruling given by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in 1967 forbids Jews from setting foot on the site for religious reasons but hardline Jewish groups disagree and call for building a third Jewish temple, which fuels Palestinians fears about the threat of Al-Aqsa mosque being destroyed.
Rosenfeld said extra police forces had been deployed around the compound in Jerusalem’s Old City during the festival.
In September 2000, a visit to the Al-Aqsa compound by controversial Israeli politician Ariel Sharon sparked what later became known as the “Second Intifada,” a popular uprising against the Israeli occupation in which thousands of Palestinians were killed.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem during the 1967 Middle East War. It later annexed the city in 1980, claiming it as the capital of the Jewish state in a move never recognized by the international community.