Israeli police stop Muslim worshipers from entering the holy site

JERUSALEM – Israel’s government crisis worsened on Sunday night after a small Islamist party announced that it would freeze its participation in the coalition following a recent increase in tensions between the Israeli police and Muslims in a large mosque in Jerusalem.

Raam, the first independent Arab party to join an Israeli government, said it suspended its involvement for the time being, following an emergency meeting of the leadership of an Islamic movement that oversees the party.

The decision has no immediate impact on the government: The Israeli parliament is on leave until May 8, when Raam may have decided to re-enter the government. But if Raam makes his decision permanent within the next three weeks, it will give opposition lawmakers a 64-56 majority in parliament with 120 seats – enough seats to vote to dissolve the body and send Israel to its fifth election in three years. .

Raams moves highlight the frayed tensions that Naftali Bennett, the prime minister, must go to hold together on his ideologically diverse coalition. The coalition was formed in June last year, without uniting its eight right-wing, left-wing, center-right and Arab parties beyond a desire to avoid a fifth election and prevent Benjamin Netanyahu, then prime minister, from holding on to power.

The government began to falter this month as a right-wing lawmaker, Idit Silman, left the coalition, saying it did not adequately represent Zionist and Jewish values. Any concessions to Raam could cause other right-wing coalition members to follow Ms. Silman in opposition.

Raam’s action follows several recent confrontations between Israeli police and Muslims at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a place sacred to both Islam and Judaism, known to Jews as the Temple Mount. The tensions were deeply embarrassing for Raam; as a coalition member, it was seen by its followers as being a party to transgressions of a mosque considered the third-holiest site in Islam.

Clashes between Israeli police officers and Palestinian stone-throwers broke out Friday morning at the mosque area, injuring more than 150 Palestinians and several officers; led to more than 400 arrests; and caused police to storm the largest mosque in the complex, which contains several places of worship.

Tensions escalated further Sunday morning as Israeli officers stopped Muslim worshipers from entering the Aqsa Mosque during a scheduled visit by Jewish worshipers and foreign tourists who are allowed to enter every morning Sunday through Thursday. The unusual move led to brief clashes on the ground and in nearby side streets, in which at least 18 Palestinians were arrested, some of them for throwing stones at passing buses and for beating and kicking religious Jews in a nearby alley. At least 17 Palestinians were injured, five of them by rubber bullets fired by police, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent, an emergency medical team.

Developments intensified tensions in Jerusalem, which have risen sharply in recent weeks after an unusually deadly wave of Arab attacks in Israel killed 14 people and, following a subsequent Israeli crackdown on the occupied West Bank, killed at least 15.

Tensions are expected to rise further in the coming days due to the rare convergence between Ramadan and Easter, which began on Friday and is driving more followers of both Islam and Judaism to the Aqsa complex.

The violence on Sunday began after police, who tried to prevent contact between Muslims and Jews who were entering the place during regular visiting hours, restricted Muslims who were already inside it to small parts of the place.

Earlier, Palestinians had gathered near the entrance to the site used by non-Muslims, blocking part of the route normally used by Jews to pray discreetly near the site of an ancient Jewish temple considered to be the holiest place in Judaism. Photographs published by a Palestinian news media indicated that stones had been stored elsewhere on the route.

Police beat some Palestinians with batongs and refused access to Muslims who were still out of the place.

The Israeli government initially refused to restrict Muslims’ access, but later a spokeswoman acknowledged that they had been blocked for security reasons for a “period”, without specifying for how long. Journalists for The New York Times saw dozens of Muslims being expelled all morning at two large entrances to the complex, while Jews and foreigners, including a Times reporter, continued to enter freely.

Police then provided Jewish worshipers with an armed escort as they walked around the perimeter of the area. Tourists and journalists were confined to a more limited area.

Clashes later broke out in the side streets around the mosque area, where Palestinians shouted, “With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice for Al Aqsa.” A reporter for The Times saw several police officers use sticks to beat a group of messing Palestinians who had been standing still outside the complex.

Video circulated by police on Sunday showed two other episodes in which a group of Arab men beat and kicked three religious Jews and – in a separate episode – threw stones from a roof.

Police also turned off the loudspeakers in the mosque after Palestinians tried to use the sound system to call people to the scene, said Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani, a senior cleric there.

Sheikh Omar described the actions of the police as “a siege.” In a statement, police said their goal was to preserve religious freedom for all religions and that they had only acted against people who “defile and desecrate the holy places and try to harm innocent civilians and security forces.”

Other Palestinians locked themselves inside the largest mosque in the area while police patrolled outside. That fight ended late in the morning after police began locking some Muslims into the area and withdrew to allow the Palestinians inside the mosque itself to leave. They came cheering, some fired fireworks, and one carried a green flag associated with Hamas, the Islamist militant group that operates the Gaza Strip.

Muslims consider the efforts of some Jewish activists to pray hidden on the site to be a provocation because they violate the long-standing Israeli policy of allowing Jews to visit but not pray. They also fear that Jewish prayer there will set in motion campaigns by small extremist groups to build a new Jewish temple on the site.

Many Muslims have also become angry at the recent efforts of extremist Jews to enter the area with young goats to bring Easter sacrifices. Police said last week that they had arrested some activists planning such a sacrifice, and officers intercepted a Jew carrying a goat near the property on Friday and confiscated the animal.

Jews disagree on whether to pray on Temple Mount.

Last week, one of Israel’s chief rabbis, David Lau, issued a statement saying it was forbidden for Jews to set foot there, an attitude that many chief rabbis have held since 1967, when Israel conquered the site from Jordan. Many Jews believe that by entering the site they risk stepping on some of the most sacred areas of the ancient Jewish temple.

The clashes on Sunday followed a more intense incident on Friday, with Israeli police officers firing rubber bullets and grenades storming the main mosque in the area to detain hundreds of Palestinians, many of whom had thrown stones at them. More than 150 people were injured.

Similar clashes in the mosque last year contributed to the outbreak of an 11-day war between Israel and militants in Gaza led by Hamas.

This year, however, both Israel and Hamas have signaled that they are not seeking an escalation. Khaled Meshaal, a senior Hamas official, said on Saturday that both sides, through Qatar officials, had conveyed that they did not want a new fire.

But Islamic Jihad, another militant group in Gaza, said Sunday that recent tensions in the mosque would lead to a “full-blown confrontation.”

Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem, Iyad Abuheweila from Gaza City, and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.

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