OCCUPIED JERUSALEM – Israeli forces stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on Friday, February 9, firing stun grenades and rubber bullets at stone-throwing Palestinian worshippers at Islam’s third holiest place.
Explosions from stun grenades, bursts of smoke and shouting rocked the esplanade of the mosque compound after Israeli soldiers stormed the holy site to dispel a Palestinian protest at the ongoing Israeli excavations near the mosque, reported Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Twenty Palestinians were treated for injuries, a Palestinian medical source said.
Seventeen people were also arrested, some of them in the streets outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls.
At least 15 Israeli soldiers were also slightly injured in the clashes.
The scuffles broke out on a day earmarked for anger over Israeli diggings near the mosque compound.
The Israel Antiquities Authority claims the work aims to strengthen an access ramp to AL-Maghariba Gate for the "benefit and safety of visitors" after damage caused by an earthquake and snowstorms in February 2004.
But the Palestinian Waqf Religious Trust says Israeli excavations endanger the foundations of the Al-Aqsa compound and were aimed at discovering the so-called haykel (temple), which Jews believe that it was lying beneath Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The compound, known as Al-Haram Al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), houses the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Al-Aqsa Mosque is the Muslims’ first Qiblah [direction Muslims take during prayers] and its the third holiest shrine after Al Ka’bah in Makkah and Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Madinah, Saudi Arabia.
Its significance has been reinforced by the incident of Al Isra’a and Al Mi’raj — the night journey from Makkah to Al-Quds and the ascent to the Heavens by Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings be Upon Him).
In an attempt to confront Israeli schemes threatening the mosque, the Palestinian Ministry of Waqfs released some one million copies of an electronic guide about the mosque and its compound.
Clashes were also reported in other points around Al-Quds in protest at the Israeli digging.
There were scuffles in Salaheddin street, the main shopping centre in east Jerusalem outside the Old City, at the Qalandiya checkpoint en route to the West Bank city of Ramallah and Shurfat refugee camp, Israeli police said.
Angry young Palestinian protestors marched through neighboring streets after police in riot gear could be seen running on the mosque compound.
There were no reports of casualties.
The ZAKA emergency service said Israeli troops were being diverted to the north of the occupied lands to prepare for possible clashes at a major protest in expected later on Friday in the city of Nazareth.
In the West Bank city of Al-Khalil (Hebron), local witnesses said the Israeli army closed the centre of the city after youths threw stones and burned tyres.
Three people were treated at a local hospital for tear gas inhalation.
The Aqsa Mosque has been a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian fighting in the past.
The second Palestinian Intifada or uprising broke out in September 2000 after a provocative visit by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the mosque compound.
In 1996, more than 80 Palestinians were killed in three days of protests after then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened a new entrance to a controversial archaeological tunnel near Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
Palestinians have repeatedly warned that ultra-orthodox Jewish groups were planning to dynamite the holy mosque.
Al-Quds mufti Sheikh Mohammed Hussein condemned the new Israeli aggression against the holy site..
"We condemn this blatant Israeli aggression against Al-Aqsa mosque and on the worshippers," he told AFP.
He accused Israel of waging a "policy of Judaizing Jerusalem" and urged Muslims throughout the world to "protect" Al-Quds and the mosque esplanade.
Sheikh Hussein warned that the continuing Israeli aggressions and excavations at the holy mosque were "placing the whole world on the brink of a religious war."
Malaysia, which chairs the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Islamic world’s largest grouping, urged Israel to stop excavations at the holy site.
"As Chairman of the OIC, we call upon the international community to intervene immediately in order to stop these illegal activities," Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said in a statement.
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, also warned that the Israeli works were threatening the holy mosque.
Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said the excavation not only has the potential to harm the mosque, but would also complicate efforts to revive the Middle East peace process.
(IslamOnline.net and news agencies)