Israel’s fractious governing coalition faced a new split on Sunday when Arab-Israeli party Raam “suspended” its membership, after violence around a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site that wounded 170 people over the weekend.
The government — an ideologically disparate mix of left-wing, hardline Jewish nationalist and religious parties, as well as Raam — had already lost its razor-thin majority this month when a religious Jewish member quit in a dispute over leavened bread distribution at hospitals.
Since then, days of violence around Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, sacred to both Muslims and Jews, put Raam under pressure to quit too.
“If the government continues its steps against the people of Jerusalem… we will resign as a bloc,” Raam said in a statement.
The latest clashes take the number of wounded since Friday to more than 170, at a tense time when the Jewish Passover festival coincides with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
They also follow deadly violence in Israel and the occupied West Bank starting in late March, in which 36 people have been killed.
Early on Sunday morning, police said “hundreds” of Palestinian demonstrators inside the mosque compound started gathering piles of stones, shortly before the arrival of Jewish visitors.
Jews are allowed to visit but not to pray at the site, the holiest place in Judaism and third-holiest in Islam.
Israeli police said its forces had entered the compound in order to “remove” the demonstrators and “re-establish order”.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said 19 Palestinians were injured, including at least five who were hospitalised. It said some had been wounded with rubber-coated steel bullets.
An AFP team near the entrance to the compound early Sunday morning saw Jewish worshippers leaving the site, barefoot for religious reasons, and protected by heavily armed police.
Outside the Old City, which lies in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, Palestinian youths threw rocks at passing buses, smashing their windows, resulting in seven people being treated for light wounds, Shaare Zedek hospital said.
The police said they had arrested 18 Palestinians, and Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev said Israel would “act strongly against anyone who dares to use terrorism against Israeli citizens”.
Bennett had said that the security forces “continue to receive a free hand… for any action that will provide security to the citizens of Israel”, while stressing every effort should be made to allow members of all religions to worship in Jerusalem.
Political sources told AFP that, after Raam’s withdrawal from his coalition, Bennett would likely seek to calm the situation.
King Abdullah II of Jordan on Sunday called on Israel to “stop all illegal and provocative measures” that drive “further aggravation”.
The kingdom serves as custodian of holy places in east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967 and later annexed in a move not recognised by most of the international community.
Senior Palestinian official Hussein Al Sheikh said Sunday that “Israel’s dangerous escalation in the Al-Aqsa compound … is a blatant attack on our holy places”, and called on the international community to intervene.
“Our people have the right to access it and pray in it, and we will not bow down to (Israeli) repression and terror,” Ismail Haniyeh said.
Pope’s Easter peace prayer
Weeks of mounting tensions saw two recent deadly attacks by Palestinians in or near the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, alongside mass arrests by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank.
A total of 14 people have been killed in attacks against Israel since March 22.
Twenty-two Palestinians have been killed over the same period, including assailants who targeted Israelis, according to an AFP tally.
On Friday morning, police clashed with Palestinians in the Al-Aqsa compound, including inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque, drawing strong condemnation from Muslim countries. Some 150 people were wounded during those clashes.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a call Sunday with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, said he would make contact with all sides to “end the Israeli escalation”, Abbas’s office said in a statement.
“May Israelis, Palestinians and all who dwell in the Holy City, together with the pilgrims… dwell in fraternity and enjoy free access to the Holy Places in mutual respect for the rights of each,” he said in his Easter address.