By Crispian Balmer and Sinan Abu Mayzer
Israeli police faced off with Palestinians holed up inside Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque on Sunday as hundreds of Jews visited the holy compound ahead of a contentious Jewish nationalist march through the heart of the Old City.
The annual Jerusalem procession celebrates Israel’s capture of the Old City in the 1967 Middle East war and draws thousands of cheering, chanting participants to its narrow, stone streets.
Palestinian factions have warned that the flag-waving parade through the city’s Muslim quarter could re-ignite their decades-old conflict with Israelis. Tensions have been rising in the city for weeks.
Hours before the procession was due to kick off, police locked some Palestinians inside a mosque on the Al-Aqsa compound as Jewish visitors arrived for daily tours of the compound, which is revered by both Muslims and Jews.
Palestinians threw stones and shot fireworks towards police, who responded with stun grenades.
Among the Jewish visitors were a dozen or so young men, wearing religious garb, who smiled, sang and clapped in the direction of the protesters. Other Jews were later seen holding up Israeli flags.
The Islamist group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, condemned videos posted online suggesting that Jews had prayed at the site, in violation of a long-standing ban.
“The Israel government is fully responsible for all these irresponsible policies and the following consequences,” senior Hamas official Bassem Naim told Reuters.
In recent years Hamas has cast itself as a defender of Muslim Jerusalem. After weeks of tension last year over Palestinian evictions in the city, Hamas fired rockets into Israel during the nationalist march, triggering an 11-day war that killed at least 250 Palestinians in Gaza and 13 people in Israel.
Despite calls for a rethink of the march from some of his own coalition allies, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has refused to countenance any changes.
“The flag parade will be held as usual according to the planned route, as it has been for decades,” his office said on Friday, adding that it would review the situation regularly through the coming hours.
Israel sees all of Jerusalem as its eternal and indivisible capital, while Palestinians want the eastern section as capital of their future state. Hamas, deemed a terrorist organisation by Western governments, sees all of modern-day Israel as occupied.
For Palestinians, Sunday’s march is an affront and a violation of one of the few places in the city, increasingly hemmed in by Jewish development and settlement.
The parade comes at an already highly charged moment.
Repeated clashes took place between Palestinians and Israeli police in the Al-Aqsa compound in April, during the holy month of Ramadan, with Muslims angered by rising numbers of Jewish visitors to the mosque esplanade.
Two weeks ago, the funeral of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, killed during an Israeli army West Bank raid, descended into chaos when police charged the mourners.
Al-Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam. It is also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount – a vestige of their faith’s two ancient temples.
Sunday’s procession is due to culminate at the Western Wall, a Jewish prayer site that sits below the Al-Aqsa mosques.