Hundreds of far-right Jewish nationalists entered Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, ahead of a provocative flag march that could re-ignite confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of a small ultranationalist opposition party in the Knesset, entered the compound early on Sunday, along with dozens of supporters.
Al Jazeera’s correspondent Najwan Simri said that Israeli forces occupied the rooftop of the al-Qibli prayer hall in the compound on Sunday morning and besieged the worshippers inside it to enable the passage of settlers to go unhindered.
She added that the Israelis prevented Palestinian journalists and photographers from entering Al-Aqsa Mosque and threatened them with arrest.
Israeli forces fired rubber bullets at Palestinians protesters in the compound, in an effort to disperse them.
At least 18 Palestinians were arrested from within occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City, Israeli police said.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said that the settlers attacked an ambulance crew affiliated with it in the Old City while they were trying to reach an injured person in al-Wad neighbourhood.
Some Jews entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound attempted to pray, incensing Palestinians.
Jewish worship is not permitted in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound by Israeli law, and it is also forbidden by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. However, some far-right Israelis believe that they should be allowed to pray in an effort to upend the delicate status quo.
Palestinians fear that their sovereignty over the compound is being eroded amid calls by far-right Israelis for the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock to be replaced with a Jewish temple.
In a tweet showing a video of Israeli forces sealing the doors of al-Qibli prayer hall, the Palestinian media group ‘Al Qastal’ said that the Israelis were trying to keep Palestinians inside.
An Israeli police spokesperson said a small group of people barricaded themselves inside the mosque and threwe large rocks towards the police officers stationed outside. There were no reports of injuries.
Al Jazeera has not been able to verify that information.
Israeli forces erected metal barriers and prevented Palestinian access to Damascus Gate, the main entrance to the Old City.
Palestinian Authority spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh said Israel considers itself above the law.
In an interview with the Voice of Palestine radio on Sunday, Abu Rudeinah said: “Israel is playing with fire by irresponsibly and recklessly allowing settlers to desecrate sanctities in occupied Jerusalem.”
He called on the international community, especially the US administration, to “shoulder its responsibilities and to not engage in double standards”.
Some 3,000 Israeli police were deployed throughout the city ahead of the march, which began at 4pm local time (1300 GMT) and is expected to end at 10pm (1900 GMT).
Translation: Watch: The occupation army brutally assaults Palestinian women on al-Wad Street in occupied Jerusalem.
Each year, thousands of Israeli far-right groups participate in the parade, waving Israeli flags and singing songs as they pass through the narrow streets of the Old City’s Muslim quarter.
The march is meant to celebrate Israel’s capture of occupied East Jerusalem in the 1967 war. Israel subsequently annexed the area in a move that is not internationally recognised.
Palestinians, who have been forced to shutter their businesses and stay indoors, view the march as a blatant provocation as Jewish settlers flaunt their sovereignty over the occupied territory.
It is also considered by Palestinians as a violation of one of the few places in the city, increasingly hemmed in by Jewish development and settlement, which retains a strong Arab flavour.
Previous marches have included Israeli chants of “Death to Arabs” and the attacking of Palestinian homes and shops in the Old City.
Other chants used by the settlers directed at Palestinians include “may your village burn” and “a second Nakba is coming” – referring to the 1948 ethnic cleansing of at least 750,000 Palestinians by Zionist paramilitaries.
Sami Abu Shehadeh, a Palestinian member of Knesset, told Al Jazeera that the march represents a very fast deterioration of the majority of the Jewish population of Israel into fascism.
“We are talking about a society that is celebrating the occupation of another people,” he said, speaking from the city of Jaffa.
“We are not talking about small marginal groups, but extreme groups that are supported by the Israeli government and defended by the Israeli police and security forces, which means that the Israeli government sees this as a legitimate act.”
Sunday’s march comes at a time of heightened tensions. Israeli police have repeatedly stormed the compound, often firing rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades at Palestinian demonstrators, injuring hundreds.
At the same time, some 19 people have been killed by Palestinian attackers in Israel and the West Bank in recent weeks, while more than 35 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank, including a 15-year-old boy who was killed on Friday in Bethlehem.
Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was also killed by Israeli forces on May 11 in Jenin, in the northern occupied West Bank, while covering an Israeli military raid.
But 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.
Hamas issued a statement on Saturday calling for Palestinians in Gaza, the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, along with Palestinian citizens of Israel “to rise up on Sunday to defend Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa mosque”.
The leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) group denounced the “brutal aggression” of the Israeli occupation against the Palestinian people.
“We affirm our readiness to defend the holy sites and the Palestinian people by all means and methods,” the group said in a statement, and warned that “desecrating Al-Aqsa compound is a dangerous transgression that the enemy will pay for”.
Last May’s flag march provoked rocket fire from Gaza, which Israel responded to by bombing the besieged territory, leading to an 11-day war in which more than 260 Palestinians, and 13 Israelis, were killed.