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An Israeli police raid on the Al-Aqsa Mosque triggers a spate of violence

Israeli police gather next to an overturned car at the site of an attack Friday in Tel Aviv in which an Italian tourist was killed and several other people were injured.
Ahmad Gharabli
AFP via Getty Images
Israeli police gather next to an overturned car at the site of an attack Friday in Tel Aviv in which an Italian tourist was killed and several other people were injured.

Updated April 8, 2023 at 2:57 PM ET

Raids by Israeli police on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the most holy Muslim site in Jerusalem, have triggered a spike in violence that continued to spiral in recent days, drawing several regional actors into a deadly back-and-forth.

Police said they were working to clear men who had barricaded themselves inside the compound midweek, flinging fireworks and rocks, while social media videos of the incursions showed Israeli officers in riot gear chasing and using clubs to beat Palestinians inside the mosque. Palestinians gathered there overnight after a fringe fundamentalist Jewish group published calls to hold a Passover goat sacrifice at the sacred compound, where ancient Jewish temples stood thousands of years ago.

Those images of physical violence (Warning: Graphic violence is depicted in the linked video) in turn sparked dozens of missiles fired from southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip against Israeli targets, Israeli retaliatory airstrikes on both territories, and a subsequent pair of attacks Friday on civilians in the occupied West Bank and Tel Aviv, which have left two British-Israeli settlers and an Italian tourist dead. The militant group Hamas has not claimed responsibility for either Friday attack, but instead praised them as valid retaliation for the prior behavior of Israeli police.

On Saturday, Israel announced it would extend a closure on Palestinians entering Israel from the West Bank, and would also suspend special entry permits for Palestinians in Gaza to visit Israel for Ramadan prayers and for work.

The escalating conflict in Israel and the occupied territories has played out against a backdrop of religious celebrations — Ramadan for Muslims, Passover for Jews and Easter for Christians — that has served to exacerbate hostilities and inflame existing tensions between separate communities.

At a moment of maximum political pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has faced weeks of unrelenting criticism for his coalition government's plans to weaken the country's judiciary, protesters are continuing their weekly rally but have agreed to cancel a march against the proposed legislation. One protest leader told NPR the decision had been taken because it was an "intensive time" for national police forces.

On Friday, two British-Israeli sisters were shot to death in a car as they travelled through the occupied West Bank. Their mother survived but was hospitalized after being severely wounded.

Later in the day, a Palestinian Israeli citizen from a village close to Tel Aviv rammed his car into ranks of tourists walking along the city's boardwalk, leaving several injured and an Italian man dead. Israeli police killed the driver after they said he reached for an object that looked like a gun — but that they later acknowledged was not a gun. His family deny that he intended to carry out any kind of assault.

The behavior of Israeli police around the Al-Aqsa Mosque earlier this week had been reminiscent of other incidents that have previously sparked wider conflagrations in the region. In the eyes of many Palestinians, such raids symbolize Israel's growing expansion and intensifying occupation of predominantly Palestinian areas, with a hardline Jewish nationalist now serving as Israel's security minister.

Netanyahu has also announced his government was calling up reserve forces for the country's largely paramilitary border force starting Sunday, in order to confront what he termed "terror attacks."

NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv contributed reporting. contributed to this story

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Willem Marx
[Copyright 2024 NPR]