Israel-Palestine conflict: why did police storm a Jerusalem mosque? Tension around Al-Aqsa site explained

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The third-most holy site in Islam overlooks the holiest site in Judaism, and the overlap of two important Jewish and Muslim holidays has raised fears of violence in embattled Jerusalem

Clashes in Israel's capital city of Jerusalem have entered their second night, after Israeli police stormed a mosque in a site important to both the Jewish and Muslim faiths, on some of the holiest days of the year.

Israeli police stormed into the Al-Aqsa Mosque early on Wednesday morning, and the situation has already devolved into airstrikes. It comes as tensions have been steadily rising since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government took office late last year.

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The government is dominated by religious and ultranationalist hard-liners, and the overlap of the Jewish and Muslim holidays – when tens of thousands of worshippers make their way to contested Jerusalem — has raised fears of violence.

So what do we know about the latest conflict so far, and why is this particular site so important to both faiths?

What do we know about the incident in Jerusalem?

Israeli police stormed into the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City early on Wednesday morning (5 April), firing stun grenades at Palestinian youths, who hurled stones and firecrackers at them in turn, in a burst of violence during the sensitive holiday season.

Gaza militants responded with rocket fire on southern Israel, prompting an Israeli airstrike.

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Thousands of Israelis attend the Annual Cohanim prayer, or Priest's blessing, for the Pesach (Passover) holiday, on April 9, 2012 at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's old city (Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)Thousands of Israelis attend the Annual Cohanim prayer, or Priest's blessing, for the Pesach (Passover) holiday, on April 9, 2012 at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's old city (Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Thousands of Israelis attend the Annual Cohanim prayer, or Priest's blessing, for the Pesach (Passover) holiday, on April 9, 2012 at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's old city (Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) | Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Palestinian news agency Wafa said that dozens of worshippers who were spending the night praying were injured in the police raid.

Israeli police said they moved in after “several law-breaking youths and masked agitators” brought fireworks, sticks and stones and barricaded themselves into the mosque. Police said the youths chanted violent slogans and locked the front doors. “After many and prolonged attempts to get them out by talking to no avail, police forces were forced to enter the compound in order to get them out,” police said.

Video released by police showed the repeated explosions of fireworks inside the mosque. One amateur video taken by Palestinians showed police scuffling with people and beating them with clubs and rifle butts as a woman’s voice could be heard shouting: “Oh God. Oh God.”

Outside the gate, police dispersed groups of youths with stun grenades and rubber bullets. Police said one officer was injured, while hundreds of people have reportedly been arrested.

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Palestinian militants responded by firing a barrage of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel, setting off air raid sirens in the region as residents were preparing for the beginning of the week-long Passover holiday.

The Israeli military said a total of five rockets were fired, and all were intercepted. Hours later, Israel responded with an airstrike in Gaza. There were no immediate details on the target. Al Jazeera reports Israeli police have also restricted access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque for Palestinian men under the age of 40.

Why is Al-Aqsa important to Palestinians and the Islamic community?

The Al-Aqsa mosque sits on a sensitive hilltop compound holy to both Jewish and Muslim communities.

Al-Aqsa is considered the third-holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Al-Aqsa is the name given to the whole compound and is home to two Muslim holy places: the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, also known as the Qibli Mosque, which was built in the 8th century, AD.

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According to Al-Jazeera, the Dome of the Rock is believed to be where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

The mosque is typically packed with worshippers during Ramadan - a month-long celebration of when the Islamic Holy Book, the Qur’an, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. People observing Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, often fast, and immerse themselves in their faith.

Why is the Temple Mount important to the Israeli and Jewish communities?

The site is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, is also the holiest site in Judaism. It is revered as the location of the biblical Jewish temples.

The Al-Aqsa compound overlooks the Western Wall, a sacred place of prayer for Jews. The Temple Mount itself is revered as the location of several biblical Jewish temples. Jews believe biblical King Solomon built the first temple there 3,000 years ago, while a second temple was razed by the Romans in AD 70, the Middle Eastern Monitor reports.

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The Jewish community was preparing to begin the Passover festival on Wednesday evening. Passover, also known as Pesach in Biblical Hebrew, is a major Jewish holiday. It is a significant festival, marking the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, as they were guided by Moses.

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