In the hours leading up to Passover 2022, Israeli police responded with tear gas and stun grenades to groups of Palestinians throwing rocks while barricaded at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Police took the unusual step of entering the mosque to make arrests, resulting in further attacks and response. At least four police were wounded in the incident, while some 150 Palestinians sustained injuries. The following Sunday, about 20 more people were wounded in a subsequent confrontation in the Al-Aqsa compound.
It was just such an incident at the Al-Aqsa Mosque that set off an eleven-day war between Israel and Gaza in May 2021, the fourth such war since 2008. The mosque has historically been at the epicenter of outbreaks of violence between Palestinians and Israelis, as was the case in the Second Palestinian intifada of 2000 to 2005. During those five years of militant conflict, thousands of Israelis and Palestinians were killed.
These incidents also don’t bode well for the continued functioning of Israel’s multiparty governing coalition. That Sunday, the Israeli Arab party Raam “suspended” its participation in the coalition because of the violence.
With the Islamic sacred month of Ramadan coinciding that week with Passover and the Christian celebration of Easter, tensions in Jerusalem were already high, and Israeli authorities had prepared for potential escalation. Recent deadly attacks on Jewish Israelis by Arab militants inside the borders of Israel had brought those tensions even closer to the edge.
International media reports love using the term “clash” to describe violent encounters between Israeli soldiers and police and Palestinian militants. But these “clashes” flow from the actions of determined groups of Palestinians who hurl rocks or otherwise provoke police attention.
Reports of the Friday incident describe a group of mostly young Palestinian males who positioned themselves against part of the mosque as they began their rocks-and-fireworks attacks. Israel’s national security minister additionally mentioned that officers were attacked with metal bars.
Israeli authorities stated that, before the violence that Friday, they had held talks with local Muslim leaders in an attempt to deescalate. Hours after they arrested suspects and cleared the area of violent behavior, police reopened the mosque in time for afternoon prayers. Police also say they only entered the Al-Aqsa compound the following Sunday to facilitate entry of Jews to the Western Wall in the face of Palestinian stockpiling of weapons in the mosque. But for Palestinians, any substantial presence of Israeli police in the Al-Aqsa compound is viewed as a provocation.
Israeli officials released video taken at the scene that shows the Palestinian actions that precipitated the encounter: throwing the fireworks and rocks toward the Western Wall. The Western Wall, like the mosque, is located on the Temple Mount, the holiest site in the world for Jews. Muslims call the Temple Mount complex the Haram al-Sharif, the “Noble Sanctuary,” and the two groups share the space in an uneasy coexistence.
Israeli journalist David Horovitz, founding editor of The Times of Israel, noted that some among the young militants gathered inside and near the mosque that Friday carried the flag of Hamas, the terror organization currently in power in Gaza. Horovitz additionally offered video footage that appeared to show that the militants were still wearing their shoes, in disrespect of Islamic tradition that worshippers remove their shoes when entering the holy space of the mosque. They had come for a fight.
The day before the violence at the mosque broke out, a small group of 20-something Jewish religious extremists were arrested for planning to recreate the ancient ritual of sacrificing a goat on the Temple Mount in the presence of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Their group, Returning to the Mount, even put out flyers offering a cash prize to anyone who conducted such a sacrifice. Earlier in the week, information about the plan reached Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza, who announced their own plans to thwart the Jewish group’s goals with violence.
A site replete with historical associations
The Al-Aqsa Mosque is situated at one of the world’s most historically and culturally important crossroads, in the Old City of Jerusalem at the southern side of the Temple Mount. It is the second-oldest mosque in the world, and is cherished by Muslims as the third-holiest site in their faith, after the cities of Mecca and Medina.
Muslims believe the mosque stands at the end point of the Prophet Muhammad’s journey to what is now Israel. The Quran relates that Muhammad experienced a miraculous transportation from Mecca to exactly this spot, where he then conducted ritual prayer in the presence of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and others among those whom Muslims consider “messengers” of monotheistic faith. According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad later that night was lifted up to heaven from the nearby Dome of the Rock. The name of the mosque means “the farthest,” denoting that it was built at the farthest point on Muhammad’s Night Journey.
Caliph Abd al-Malik of the Umayyad dynasty had the Al-Aqsa Mosque constructed in the early years of the 8th century CE, so its architecture is typical of the early Islamic style. Although the building was several times demolished by earthquakes over the years, it was continually rebuilt. Visitors are able to reach the mosque from the Western Wall plaza.
Foreign governments condemn, Israel asks for restoration of peace
The international response to the Israeli police action came swiftly, and predictably. Jordan, which is a designated custodian of Muslim holy sites at the Temple Mount, requested that the United Nations Security Council meet to discuss the matter, and the Council met on Tuesday, April 19. Jordan’s government has become increasingly vocal over what it terms Israel’s failure to follow through on agreements about managing the area.
Meanwhile, Turkey issued a condemnation of Israel’s “intervention on worshippers” and the United Arab Emirates summoned the Israeli ambassador. The UAE, which normalized relations with Israel in 2020, claims that Israel’s response at Al-Aqsa endangered civilian lives and interfered with Palestinians’ ability to worship according to the tenets of their faith.
A representative for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in this situation as “a dangerous escalation.” Meanwhile, in an event dripping with irony, Vladimir Putin told Abbas that he, too, condemned Israel’s actions at the mosque. The call between Putin and Abbas took place the Monday following the incidents, but also less than two weeks after Israel joined 92 other nations in voting to suspend Russia’s membership on the UN Human Rights Council for unprovoked war against Ukraine.
Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, told American Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Israel’s actions were a responsible way to address rioting and extremists’ distribution of falsehoods about the situation. Lapid asked for the global community’s support in helping restore peace to Jerusalem.