Israeli police have clashed with Palestinian protesters in the latest violence at Jerusalem’s flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound, as the UN voiced deep concern at spiralling unrest.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said 57 people were wounded on Friday, including 14 Palestinians taken to hospital, one of them in a serious condition, after police stormed the facility in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem’s Old City.
The clashes come after a month of deadly violence, as the Jewish festival of Passover overlaps with the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
The violence has sparked international fears of conflict, a year since similar unrest led to an 11-day war between Israel and militants in Gaza.
This week, Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip have fired rockets at Israel, which has responded by sending warplanes to strike the blockaded and impoverished territory.
“We are deeply concerned by the escalating violence in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel over the past month,” said Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the UN office of the high commissioner for human rights.
Israeli police said Palestinians began hurling stones before dawn on Friday towards the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray. “Police forces used crowd dispersal means in order to stop the violence,” the force said, adding that one officer had been wounded.
Al-Aqsa is Islam’s third-holiest site, and the most sacred site in Judaism where it is known as the Temple Mount.
Police fired teargas and rubber-tipped bullets at Palestinian youths who were throwing stones, and later used drones to spray teargas from the air, according to a photographer at the scene. After midday prayers some worshippers chanted “incitement” and tried to damage a security post, police said.
More than 200 people, mostly Palestinians, have been hurt in clashes in and around Al-Aqsa in the past week. Many Palestinians have been outraged by massive Israeli police deployment and repeated visits by Jews to the holy site.
By longstanding convention, Jews are allowed to visit under certain conditions but are not allowed to pray there.
A Palestinian worshipper, Alaa al-Haddad, said Israel was restricting access to Al-Aqsa, which had created “tensions that led to clashes” with the hundreds of people arrested in recent days.
“It’s all because the occupation forces are regularly storming the holy Al-Aqsa mosque,” Haddad added.
On Thursday, Arab ministers meeting in Jordan – the custodian of east Jerusalem’s holy sites – denounced “Israeli attacks and violations against worshippers” at Al-Aqsa, calling them “a blatant provocation to the feelings of Muslims everywhere”.
On Friday, the UN high commissioner for human rights demanded an investigation of the Israeli police actions.
“The use of force by Israeli police resulting in widespread injuries among worshippers and staff in and around the Al-Aqsa mosque compound must be promptly, impartially, independently and transparently investigated,” Shamdasani said.
But the Israeli foreign minister, Yair Lapid, speaking on Thursday after meeting the US acting assistant secretary of state, Yael Lempert, contradicted Palestinian claims and said Israel was “preserving and will continue to preserve the status quo on the Temple Mount”.
The latest rise in violence, including four deadly attacks since 22 March in Israel carried out by Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, have killed 14 people.
Over the same period, 24 Palestinians have been killed, including assailants who targeted Israelis, according to one tally. Among them was 20-year-old Ibrahim Labdy, from Jenin, who died on Friday from wounds sustained during an Israeli raid on the city last week.
Violence has also increased dramatically in the Palestinian coastal enclave of the Gaza Strip, run by the Islamist movement Hamas, where crowds rallied on Friday in solidarity with those in Al-Aqsa.
On Thursday, Gaza militants and Israeli warplanes exchanged fire in the biggest escalation in months.
After a rocket launched by militants hit the garden of a house in southern Israel late on Wednesday – the first such attack since January – Israel launched airstrikes against Gaza.
The military said it had hit an underground rocket factory, prompting another volley of rockets from Gaza.
A Hamas spokesperson, Fawzi Barhoum, said the movement was “determined to continue the struggle … no matter the sacrifices”.
The violence has proved a political headache for the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who leads an ideologically divided coalition government. After losing its one-seat majority in parliament this month, the Raam party, drawn from the country’s Arab minority, suspended its support for the coalition over clashes at Al-Aqsa.