JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli police stormed Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound on Sunday, hurling stun grenades at Palestinians who threw rocks at them, in another outbreak of violence at the holy city’s most sensitive site.
A Palestinian Red Crescent medic said 18 Palestinians were injured. Police reported that three officers were hurt.
The unrest, following a similar incident a month ago, did not appear to herald any immediate slide into widespread violence that could disrupt U.S.-led efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, suspended since December.
But the confrontation between Israeli police in riot gear and rock-throwing Muslims alarmed by rumors that right-wing Jews planned to enter the site was a reminder that Jerusalem remains a cauldron of heated religious and political passions.
At the nearby Qalandiya checkpoint into the occupied West Bank, a Palestinian woman stabbed and lightly wounded an Israeli security officer, police said. She was arrested.
Police, who also used tear gas in the Jerusalem clashes, did not go into al-Aqsa mosque, situated on al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), regarded by Muslims as the third-holiest site after the cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The compound is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, where the two destroyed biblical temples once stood. Israel captured the site in a 1967 war, along with the rest of East Jerusalem, which it annexed, and adjoining parts of the West Bank.
Police said the violence began after Palestinians threw stones at officers on patrol in the area. Police then rushed onto the compound behind riot shields, using stun grenades and batons to repel protesters, who retreated into the mosque.
During the clash, dozens of young Arab men threw rocks, lumps of masonry and water tanks from the roofs of houses at police in the narrow alleyways around the mosque compound, which overlooks the Western Wall, Judaism’s key place of prayer.
A police spokesman said 16 people were arrested and that calm had largely returned to the area, several hours after the clashes erupted and police reinforcements deployed across East Jerusalem. Tourists continued to walk through the Old City and Jewish prayers at the Western Wall were held as normal.
Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned “the storming of Haram al-Sharif by Israeli forces.” He called on the international community “to put pressure on Israel...and prevent tension in the region.”
Internal Palestinian tensions have also risen over a decision by the Western-backed Abbas on Friday to push ahead with presidential and parliamentary elections on January 24 in the absence of a unity deal with the rival Hamas Islamist group.
Hamas, which won a 2006 election, suggested it may hold its own ballot in the Gaza Strip, territory it seized in fighting with forces loyal to Abbas’s Fatah movement in 2007.
Palestinians have been united in their concern that Israel is tightening its grip on the Old City and Arab East Jerusalem.
Israel views all of Jerusalem as its capital, a claim that has not been recognized internationally, and has said construction for Jewish housing would continue there despite Palestinian and international calls for a settlement freeze.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they hope to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Ghassan Khatib, head of the Palestinian government press office, voiced concern over “dangerous Israeli provocations” in Jerusalem, which he said included restrictions on the entry of Muslim worshippers to al-Aqsa compound.
Israeli security forces control access to the area and regularly prohibit young Muslim men from entering the stone esplanade in the walled Old City, citing security concerns.
Diplomats have said that some tensions have been raised by factional disputes among Muslim groups using the mosque compound, with some local Islamic leaders challenging the authority of established clerics.
A Palestinian uprising erupted nine years ago after then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon toured the site.
Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Robin Pomeroy