The attack in Elad, Israel, on Thursday came after several weeks of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and days after a Palestinian militant leader urged Arabs to “get your cleavers, axes or knives ready” in response to police interventions at the site.
The Aqsa Mosque is one of the holiest sites in Islam and a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. The area is known as the Temple Mount to Jews, the site of two ancient temples and the holiest place in Judaism.
Clashes broke out there repeatedly during the recent holy month of Ramadan, as Palestinians attempted to block what they feared were efforts to undermine Muslim access to and oversight over the site, and the Israeli police mounted what they said were counterterrorism efforts to keep the site safe and accessible to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The Israeli authorities say there has been no change in longstanding arrangements at the site, nor are there plans to change them. However, in recent months the Israeli police have regularly allowed quiet Jewish prayer at the site, upending a decades-old convention prohibiting it and angering Palestinians.
During the recent violence, Palestinians have typically thrown stones and shot off fireworks at police, while the police have fired sponge-covered bullets and tear gas.
On Saturday, Hamas’s leader, Yahya Sinwar, had warned that any further police raids inside the compound would prompt a response from the group and urged Arab residents of Israel to “get your cleavers, axes or knives ready.”
Tensions had been expected at the site on Thursday, Israel’s Independence Day, because some ultranationalist groups had called for Israelis to enter the compound carrying Israeli flags in an assertion of Israeli sovereignty over the site. The Aqsa Mosque lies in East Jerusalem, which Israel considers part of its capital and most of the world considers occupied.
But the tensions at the site on Thursday were in fact lower than in recent weeks, barring a brief sequence of scuffles that lasted less than five minutes.
The police instructed Israeli visitors not to display Israeli flags, and confiscated at least one flag after an Israeli woman tried to unfurl it on the mosque grounds.
Violence broke out briefly at about 7:50 am, when a Palestinian man blocked the path of a group of Israeli visitors, video showed. The man was quickly arrested during a brief scuffle, and the police formed a loose cordon between Israeli and Palestinian civilians.
Two minutes later, another scuffle broke out between the police and Palestinians, during which Palestinians threw four plastic chairs, and a group of Palestinians ran into the main mosque on the site and barricaded themselves inside. Over the next three minutes, several blasts could be heard, but it was unclear whether these were shots fired by police or fireworks set off by Palestinians.
The police later said the Palestinians threw stones and fireworks, though none were visible in the video at that time.
Police officers briefly opened one of the mosque doors and stood inside the threshold for less than a minute. But the mood calmed within five minutes, and dozens of Muslims prayed throughout the morning on the terrace outside the main mosque.
Despite the relative calm, the reaction from Palestinian leaders was strident.
The Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry called the police actions at the site “an official Israeli declaration of a religious war that would set the entire region on fire.”
Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, later released a statement calling it “a serious escalation and a direct provocation and foreshadowed an all-out explosion.”