by Ahmad GHARABLI with Mai YAGHI in Gaza
Global criticism and concern mounted on Wednesday after Israeli police clashed with Palestinians inside Islam's third-holiest site, sparking a military exchange of rockets and air strikes, with fears of further escalation.
Two more rockets were fired late Wednesday from the Israel-blockaded Gaza Strip towards Israel, the army and witnesses said, and fresh altercations broke out at Al-Aqsa mosque during the Jewish Passover and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Armed police in riot gear stormed the prayer hall of Al-Aqsa mosque before dawn Wednesday, aiming to dislodge "law-breaking youths and masked agitators" they said had barricaded themselves inside.
A barrage of rocks and fireworks met the officers, police video showed, and more than 350 people were arrested.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was "shocked and appalled" by images he saw of Israeli security forces beating people at the mosque, particularly because it came at a time holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims that should be a period of peace, his spokesman said.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the United States said he was "extremely concerned by the continuing violence and we urge all sides to avoid further escalation".
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country and Israel have been rebuilding ties, said: "Trampling on the Al-Aqsa mosque is our red line."
Later on Wednesday, Israeli police said "dozens of law-breaking juveniles, some of them masked, threw fireworks and stones" into the mosque and tried again to barricade themselves in as worshippers gathered for evening prayers.
Officers thwarted and dispersed the "violent rioters" and allowed worshippers to leave, police said. An AFP journalist saw Israeli security forces blocking access routes to the mosque.
A spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said Israel was "creating an atmosphere of escalation, instability and tension", saying police stormed the mosque and attacked worshippers on Wednesday evening.
Violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has intensified since the new government of veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took power in December, a coalition with extreme right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.
Palestinian witness Abdel Karim Ikraiem, 74, said Israeli police armed with batons, tear gas grenades and smoke bombs burst into the mosque "by force" and "beat the women and men" worshipping there early Wednesday.
One video widely circulated on social media showed police clubbing people on the floor inside the mosque.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said it had treated 37 people, including some after their release from custody.
Israel's far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir voiced "complete backing" for police and their "swift and determined" actions.
Palestinian militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, called on West Bank Palestinians "to go en masse to the Al-Aqsa mosque to defend it".
The mosque in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem is built on top of what Jews call the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest site.
It has been a frequent flashpoint, and clashes there in May 2021 sparked the latest Gaza war that raged for 11 days.
Rocks and fireworks
On Gaza's streets, protesters burned tyres and swore "to defend and protect the Al-Aqsa mosque".
Within hours of the first clashes at Al-Aqsa mosque, at least nine rockets were fired from Gaza towards Israel, the army said, adding that "in response" warplanes struck two suspected Hamas weapons-manufacturing sites.
The air strikes were followed by new rocket fire from Gaza and further Israeli strikes, AFP journalists reported.
Later Wednesday witnesses reported two more rockets fired from northern Gaza. Israel said "one launch failed" and fell in Gaza while the other landed "in the area of the security fence" boundary.
Islamic Jihad, another Gaza-based militant group, called the rockets "a first warning message".
Palestinian civil affairs minister Hussein al-Sheikh condemned the Israeli police action inside Al-Aqsa, saying "the level of brutality requires urgent Palestinian, Arab and international action".
Germany urged both sides "to do everything possible to calm the situation".
The Arab League denounced "the attack on the faithful" and called an emergency meeting.
Jordan, which administers the mosque, condemned its "storming", and called on Israeli forces to leave the compound immediately.
The United Arab Emirates and Morocco, which established ties with Israel in 2020 as part of US-brokered accords, also strongly condemned the Israeli police action.
A UAE foreign ministry statement rejected all practices that "threaten to further exacerbate escalation". It also criticised worshippers who "barricade themselves".
Rabat's foreign ministry stressed the need "to avoid measures and violations likely to damage chances of peace in the region".
The Gulf emirate of Qatar, which does not recognise Israel, warned that Israeli practices "will have serious repercussions on security and stability in the region, and will undermine efforts to revive the stalled peace process, if the international community does not hasten to take action".
So far this year, the conflict has claimed the lives of at least 91 Palestinians, 15 Israelis and one Ukrainian, according to an AFP tally based on official sources from both sides.