Palestinians on Sunday removed barriers at an entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City, which became the focal point of clashes with Israeli police.
Young Palestinians carried the metal barriers away from the steps of Damascus Gate, a historic entryway that is a popular place for Muslims to meet during Ramadan, after police agreed to the move to “lower the level of violence”.
While dozens of heavily armed police looked on, crowds chanted “freedom” and danced as the wide steps filled with people.
"There were problems at Damascus Gate because of the closure," Mohammad Nathah, 19, told The National.
"But thankfully it’s open, everything’s fine and the people are happy," the Jerusalem resident added.
The police approval to remove the barriers followed consultations with local and religious leaders, a police spokesman told the AFP news agency.
But, after some in the plaza unfurled Palestinian flags, police rushed down the steps and sent the crowds running.
Police said 12 people were arrested for alleged rioting, violence and assaulting officers.
The decision by Israeli authorities to prevent people from gathering during Ramadan at the gate, which leads worshippers to Al Aqsa Mosque compound, has prompted daily protests by Palestinians.
The situation escalated on Thursday when Jewish extremists marched towards the Old City gate, chanting “Death to Arabs”, in response to videos circulated on social media showing Palestinians hitting Jews.
Although police kept them apart from the Palestinian protesters, by the end of Thursday night more than 50 people had been arrested. The Palestine Red Crescent Society said 100 Palestinians were wounded.
The unrest prompted militants in Gaza to launch three dozen rockets the following night towards Israel, which responded with retaliatory strikes on the Palestinian territory.
No casualties were reported on either side and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called “for calm on all sides”.
“Regarding Gaza, I have ordered [security officials] to prepare for any scenario,” he said on Saturday.
At least two rockets were fired from Gaza later the same day, the Israeli army said, followed by three strikes on Sunday evening. Israel reacted by banning fishing off the coast of the impoverished Palestinian enclave until further notice.
Israel’s military chief, Aviv Kohavi, postponed a trip to the US as he worked to “restore stability and calm”.
“At the same time, we are fully prepared for the possibility of escalation or expansion of the campaign, and are making the necessary preparations,” Mr Kohavi told local Israeli leaders.
The UAE expressed "grave concern" on Sunday night over the violence in East Jerusalem.
The Foreign Ministry rejected “all forms of violence and hatred” and called on the Israeli authorities "to assume responsibility for reducing the escalation and putting an end to all attacks and practices that lead to a continuing state of tensions".
The response from Gaza militants after the violence in East Jerusalem indicates the central role the city has in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives that promote coexistence between Jews and Arabs, said issues related to worship in the ancient city could cause divisions elsewhere.
"I believe that tensions over the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque can inflame tensions inside Israel," Mr Abu Rass told The National.
After the compound was closed for weeks last year due to coronavirus restrictions, Mr Abu Rass said Arab-Israelis and Palestinians are focused on reaching Jerusalem during Ramadan.
“This year people believe it’s a kind of pilgrimage, even secular people are visiting,” he said. “It’s a matter of identity for us, it’s a political statement.”
Jerusalem’s Old City has been occupied by Israel since 1967 and although Jordan is the custodian of Al Aqsa Mosque, Israel controls access to the compound.
Deadly clashes occurred when Israel installed metal detectors at the site in 2017, after two police officers were killed there.
Muslims prayed outside the entrance in protest and within days Israel had scrapped the security measure.
Ir Amim, an Israeli NGO that campaigns for greater equality in Jerusalem, was among those lobbying Israeli officials to reverse the latest restrictions at Damascus Gate.
“When you know how important this area is for Palestinians every day and in Ramadan specifically, then it’s a crazy decision,” Noa Dagoni, the organisation’s policy advocacy co-ordinator, said earlier on Sunday.
“The situation is very bad. But if today the police manage to get a responsible decision and take down these barriers, then there is still a chance that the situation will slowly de-escalate,” she said, anticipating the Israeli authorities’ decision.
“I think the next few days are critical."