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Israeli forces storm Al-Aqsa, arrest over 300 as clashes resume with Hamas

Violent clashes at the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa compound led to heavy rocket fire overnight from the Gaza Strip toward Israeli localities.

Israeli forces stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on early Wednesday, arresting at least 300 Palestinians at the height of Ramadan as cross-border fire resumed between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. 

Videos circulating online showed clashes inside Al-Aqsa, the third holiest site in Islam, with Israeli forces using batons, rubber bullets and smashing chairs as they worked to evacuate the mosque.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed "Muslim extremists" for the clashes Wednesday. He tweeted, "Muslim worshipers at Al-Aqsa Mosque testify that the Muslim extremists who barricaded themselves in the mosque imprisoned them there and prevented other Muslims from coming to the mosque to pray."

Israeli reports said the clashes happened after a group of people inside the mosque barricaded themselves at the Temple Mount compound in response to calls by Hamas to prevent Jews from ascending the Temple Mount and offering a Passover sacrifice there. The Passover holiday starts on Wednesday. The Jerusalem Red Cross reported that 19 people were injured in the clashes.

The Israeli authorities said that on Tuesday, several young people brought firecrackers and stones to be used against Jewish worshippers on Wednesday morning, prompting security forces to act to remove them from the site. At least one Israeli police officer was injured by thrown rocks.

Outrage in Arab world

The scenes of chaos and clashes inside Al-Aqsa elicited outrage across the Arab world. 

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority, called it "aggression," saying, "The Israeli government bears full responsibility for the aggression in Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is the beginning of a war against the Palestinian people."

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit warned of further escalation in a statement Wednesday, saying, "The extremist approaches that control the policy of the Israeli government will lead to widespread confrontations with the Palestinians if they are not put to an end." Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan also accused Israel of what they called an "unjustified crackdown" on the holy site. 

European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano said on Wednesday that Brussels is "deeply concerned by the growing tensions and violence which we have seen overnight inside the compound of Al-Aqsa Mosque." Stano noted it was "extremely important to preserve the historic status quo of the holy site." He reiterated calls on both Israelis and Palestinians to exercise the utmost restraint during religious holidays.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi slammed Israel, blaming its occupation of Jerusalem since 1967. "The brutal Israeli attack on peaceful worshippers at Al-Aqsa is an abominable act that violates all laws, human values. The world must clearly condemn it. The occupation and its illegal, inhumane and provocative practices are pushing towards explosion in these holy days."

Turkey, which recently restored its ties with Israel, strongly criticized the raid. A statement issued by the Foreign Ministry in Ankara read, “We denounce in the strongest terms Israeli security forces' raid on Al-Aqsa Mosque since last night, violating the sanctity of al-Haram al-Sharif and the historical status quo." It called on the Israeli government to "immediately stop all kinds of incitements, actions and attacks that may lead to further escalation of tension in the region."

Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Wednesday at noon that the IDF is preparing "for every possibility," saying, "We will hit anyone trying to hurt us, with a heavy price."

In an effort to calm tensions Wednesday morning, Israel's Foreign Ministry published videos showing that aside from the clashes, prayers elsewhere at the site continued normally. Spokespeople noted that so far, Ramadan prayers have been conducted quietly and respectfully, with hundreds of thousands of worshipers arriving to Jerusalem's Old City without problems. 

Hamas fires rockets

Hamas and Islamic Jihad fired several rockets at Israel’s southern communities following the clashes on Temple Mount. Israelis residing near the border with Gaza were instructed to stay home as sirens warned them throughout the night of rockets fired from the Strip. The IDF said that most rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system or landed in open fields. One rocket fell near a factory in the industrial zone of the southern town of Sderot. IDF believes the rockets were fired by militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Retaliating on Wednesday morning, the IDF struck two Hamas targets in Gaza where weapons were stored or manufactured. No casualties were reported. Haaretz reported that Israel told Hamas that it does not seek escalation, especially on the eve of the Passover holiday week starting Wednesday evening.

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