Israeli police stormed Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque compound before dawn on Wednesday, attacked worshippers and fired stun grenades at Palestinian youths who had thrown fireworks and stones, drawing condemnation from across the region and igniting a tense situation in the occupied territories and Gaza.
The Israeli military carried out air strikes on what they said were Hamas weapons manufacturing sites in Gaza after militants fired at least nine rockets from the strip in response to the Al Aqsa raids.
The Arab League called for an emergency meeting on Wednesday afternoon after a request from Jordan, Egypt and Palestinian authorities to discuss the raids.
The UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation “reiterated its firm position on the need to provide full protection for Al Aqsa Mosque and halt serious and provocative violations taking place there.”
The ministry “emphasised that worshippers should not barricade themselves inside the mosque and places of worship with weapons and explosives.”
UN Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland also said he was "disturbed by the apparent beating of Palestinians by Israeli security forces and large number of arrests. Strongly reject the stockpiling and use of fireworks and rocks by Palestinians inside the mosque," he wrote on Twitter.
The incidents came during Ramadan and on the eve of the Jewish Passover against a backdrop of tensions after a year of escalating violence.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said at least 12 Palestinians were wounded during the Al Aqsa raid by police using rubber bullets and batons. It said that Israeli forces had prevented its medics from reaching the area.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was working to “maintain the status quo and calm the spirits” in the area, but accused “Muslim extremists” of being behind the violence.
Videos shared by official Palestinian channels showed police beating people in the mosque and images shared widely showed dozens of men and boys lying on the floor with their hands zip-tied behind their backs.
Video released by police showed the repeated explosions of fireworks inside the mosque.
Talab Abu Eisha, 49, said more than 400 men, women and children were praying at Al Aqsa when the police encircled the mosque.
“The youths were afraid and started closing the doors,” he said, adding that police forces “stormed the eastern corner, beating and arresting men there”.
He said police prevented all men aged under 50 from passing through the gates leading to the compound for dawn prayers on Wednesday.
Israeli police said in a statement that they entered the compound after what it called “several law-breaking youths and masked agitators” brought fireworks, sticks and stones and barricaded themselves into the mosque.
“After many and prolonged attempts to get them out by talking to no avail, police forces were forced to enter the compound in order to get them out,” police said.
“When the police entered, stones were thrown at them and fireworks were fired from inside the mosque by a large group of agitators.”
It said more than 350 people who had barricaded themselves inside were arrested and removed while Palestinian groups put the figure at closer to 500.
Outside the gate, police dispersed groups of youths with stun grenades and rubber bullets.
“I was sitting on a chair reciting [the Quran],” an elderly woman told Reuters outside the mosque. “They hurled stun grenades, one of them hit my chest.”
Thousands of worshippers spent the night in the mosque compound, amid fears of possible clashes with Jewish visitors to the site, which they revere as the Temple Mount, the site of Judaism's two ancient temples.
Under the long-held status quo that governs the site, non-Muslims are allowed to visit the compound but not pray. However, Jewish activists and nationalists visiting the site have prayed more or less openly in recent months.
Earlier this week, Israeli police arrested campaigner Refael Morris for disturbing the peace after calls for Jews to enter the compound and stage a Passover animal sacrifice.
The waqf, the Jordanian-appointed Islamic organisation that manages the complex, considered the third holiest site in the Muslim world, described the police actions as a “flagrant assault on the identity and the function of the mosque as a place of worship for Muslims alone”.
There were protests on Wednesday morning throughout the occupied West Bank.
Arab states condemn raids
Palestinian officials condemned Israel's attacks on worshippers and called it a crime.
“We warn the occupation against crossing red lines at holy sites, which will lead to a big explosion,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas.
Jordan, which serves as the custodian of the mosque, also condemned the raid “in the strongest terms”.
Its Foreign Ministry warned of the “consequences of this dangerous escalation and held Israel responsible for the safety of the blessed Al Aqsa Mosque”.
Dr Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE President, said the UAE’s stance on the stability and prosperity of the region is clear, based on the need to choose peace and development for a prosperous future for the region.
Saudi Arabia condemned the incident, which its Foreign Ministry said undermined peace efforts.
Egypt condemned the “blatant attacks” on worshippers.
“Egypt holds Israel, the occupying power, responsible for this dangerous escalation which could undermine the truce efforts in which Egypt is engaged with its regional and international partners,” its Foreign Ministry said.
The raid comes after tensions have risen in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem over the past year.
There are concerns over more violence as Ramadan coincides with Judaism's Passover and Christian Easter this month.
The Israeli police force is overseen by Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist with a history of violent rhetoric against the Palestinians.
He called for a harsh response from Israel, saying “Hamas rockets require more than blasting dunes and empty sites. It's time to rip heads off in Gaza. We must not deviate from an equation that necessitates a serious response for each and every rocket.”
The Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari said “We are not interested in an escalation, but we are ready for any scenario.”
Militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad also called for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel to gather at Al Aqsa Mosque and confront Israeli forces.
The Israeli military also reported fighting in Beit Umar, a Palestinian town in the occupied West Bank.
It said people burnt tires and hurled rocks and explosives at soldiers. It said one soldier was shot by armed suspects, who managed to flee.
Israeli-Palestinian violence has surged over the past year, as the Israeli military carried out near-nightly raids on Palestinian towns and as Palestinians staged numerous attacks against Israelis.
At least 88 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire this year, AP reported.
Palestinian attacks against Israelis have killed 15 people in the same period.
Israel says most of the Palestinians killed were militants. But stone-throwing youths and bystanders not involved in violence were also among the dead. All but one of the Israeli dead were civilians.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent state they seek in the West Bank and Gaza. — Additional reporting by agencies