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Israel closes Al-Aqsa gate and restricts entry to Jerusalem after night of clashes

Israeli far-right settlers took to the streets of Jerusalem on Thursday calling to 'restore Jewish dignity' and chanting 'death to Arabs'
Members of the Israeli security forces deploy during clashes with Palestinian protesters outside the Damascus Gate in occupied East Jerusalem's Old City on 22 April 2021 (AFP)

After a night of violence, Israeli military police closed one of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound gates in the occupied Old City of Jerusalem on Friday, preventing Palestinians who gathered at Bab Hutta gate in the Muslim quarter from performing dawn prayer on the second Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The clampdown comes after far-right Israeli settlers took to the streets of Jerusalem on Thursday evening in a march to "restore Jewish dignity", chanting "Death to Arabs” and attacking Palestinians.

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The clashes, which lasted from late Thursday evening until Friday morning, left 110 Palestinians and 20 Israeli policemen injured, while 50 Palestinians were arrested, according to official Palestinian Authority news agency Wafa.

Israeli forces tightened movement restrictions around occupied East Jerusalem on Friday, installing metal barriers, inspecting the IDs of Palestinians and only allowing a small number of residents from the West Bank to enter the city from the Qalandia and Bethlehem military checkpoints. Palestinians who have yet to receive a Covid-19 vaccine were sent back.

Lehava group

Hundreds of Israeli settlers from Lehava, an anti-Palestinian far-right group, gathered on Thursday evening in Sheikh Jarrah, Musrara, Wadi al-Joz, and the French Hill neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem and attacked Palestinians leaving the Al-Aqsa compound after the Ramadan evening prayer, tarawih.

Lehava opposes “Jewish assimilation” and "miscegenation" - marriages or relationships between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, be they Muslim or Christian. The group was founded in 2009 by far-right figure Bentzi Gopstein and has around 10,000 members in various cities.

Lehava drew attention in 2014 after its supporters set fire to a mixed school teaching Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, and protested against a private wedding party between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman.

Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the anti-Palestinian Otzma Yehudit party and a lawyer for Lehava, was elected as a Knesset member for the Religious Zionism political bloc in March. 

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Gopstein, the head of Lehava and a member of Otzma Yehudit, called on Wednesday evening for his supporters to march in Jerusalem with “Israeli flags and lots of Jewish pride, without fear”.

“Instead of dealing a fatal blow to terror and causing the Arabs to think a thousand times before they dare lift a hand against a Jew, the police are displaying unprecedented weakness, which only fuels the terror and causes it to grow,” Gopstein told his supporters.

He was referring to two TikTok videos that recently went viral, in which a Palestinian teen slapped an Israeli settler on Jerusalem's light rail train and a Palestinian kicked an Israeli policeman in the face.

Two 17-year-old Palestinians were arrested in relation to the first incident.

On Thursday, Lehava supporters obstructed traffic on Road 1, a major route that cuts Jerusalem in half and was historically the buffer zone between Israeli and Jordanian-controlled areas until 1967, when Israel first occupied the eastern half of Jerusalem. 

The Lehava supporters vandalised cars belonging to Palestinians at the Old City's Damascus Gate and threw stones at the windows of Palestinians houses in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, while Israeli military police fired live and rubber-coated bullets, tear gas and stun grenades, and sprayed skunk water at Palestinians, according to Wafa.

Haaretz reported that authorities used horse-mounted officers to push back far-right Israeli activists.

'Organised state terrorism'

The Arab Joint List, a political alliance that represents Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Knesset, said in a statement that the scenes in Jerusalem were “a joint aggression by the police forces and the misdeeds of Jewish extremists from the Kahane gangs supported by [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu... against the Palestinians, especially Jerusalemites."

“This chaos in Jerusalem... aims at emptying (the city) of their people, the homes and their owners,” read the Joint List statement.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh condemned the acts of the Israeli police and settlers against Palestinians in Jerusalem, saying they amounted to “organised state terrorism”.

“The aim is to Judaise the Holy City [of Jerusalem], impose false facts, and harm Islamic and Christian sanctities there, through the repeated daily raids of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the attempts to burn down the Gethsemane Church months ago,” Shtayyeh said.

Mohammed al-Momani, a member of Jordan's Senate foreign affairs committee, told Al-Quds Al-Arabi on Friday that Israel was attempting to damage the Hashemite kingdom's custodianship of Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, but that “they did not expect the kingdom's solid position in defending it and standing in the face of their continuous violations”.

“Jordan's relations with Palestine are not like our relationship with any other country," he added, referring to "the love of Al-Aqsa and the desire to preserve its sanctity".

Since the start of Ramadan, Israeli forces have installed metal barriers to prevent Palestinians from sitting on the stairs of Damascus Gate plaza and organising activities in the area for when people have broken their fast.

Some 60,000 Palestinians performed the second Friday prayer of Ramadan at the Al-Aqsa compound, compared to 70,ooo last week.

In 2019, 150,000 Palestinians performed the first Friday prayers of Ramadan at Al-Aqsa.

In 2020, the Al-Aqsa compound was shut twice after the coronavirus pandemic hit. The first closure was mid-March to 31 May, while the second, from mid-September, lasted for a month.