Jerusalem: Israel assaults and detains Palestinians celebrating the Prophet Muhammad's birth
Dozens of Palestinians were injured and arrested by Israeli forces while marking the birth of the Prophet Muhammad at Damascus Gate plaza in occupied East Jerusalem on Tuesday.
Israeli military forces dispersed the Palestinians who gathered at Damascus Gate with skunk water, dogs, and beatings with clubs. They also fired stun grenades and teargas canisters, eyewitnesses told Middle East Eye.
'Israel is trying to disturb the atmosphere of joy for Palestinians and harass them'
- Ekrima Sabri, al-Aqsa mosque imam
The Palestinian Red Crescent said that 17 people suffered various injuries caused by rubber-coated bullets, teargas suffocation, beatings and stun grenades. Ten Palestinians were hospitalised, while the rest were treated on site.
The Israeli police said it had arrested 22 Palestinians, while an Israeli bus company transporting settlers to the Western Wall in the old city said it was suspending its services temporarily, after two passengers were slightly injured by stones thrown by Palestinians.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians had attended the procession of Mawlid al-Nabi, which marks the birth of the prophet, in East Jerusalem. The event is celebrated and cherished around the Muslim world: religious songs praising the prophet are performed and the Quran is recited.
The Palestinian Al-Quds Hilal Club's scouting group had performed several national and religious songs, and played drums and bagpipes, proceeding from Saladin Street, through Sultan Suleiman Street adjacent to the ancient walls of Jerusalem, towards Damascus Gate and then to al-Aqsa mosque complex.
Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, al-Aqsa mosque's imam, told Middle East Eye that the procession of Mawlid al-Nabi was "majestic", with almost 100,000 Palestinians attending the event.
"This incredible scene enrages the [Israeli] occupation, which does not like the presence of large numbers of Muslims in al-Aqsa mosque," Sabri said. "Therefore, Israel is trying to disturb the atmosphere of joy for Palestinians, and harass them. This is what we saw when [Israeli forces] started chasing and arresting children... Israeli occupation measures are repressive and it leads to spreading insecurity in the city."
Sabri also said that Palestinians have the right to use the public site of Damascus Gate "daily and regularly".
Naser al-Hidmi, head of the Jerusalem Authority Against Judaisation, told MEE that Damascus Gate has become a Palestinian national and social symbol.
"It's a battle over identity and that's why occupation authorities are annoyed" by Palestinians sitting at Damascus Gate plaza, Hidmi added.
He said that the ancient gate, from which Jerusalem's residents and travellers departed north to Damascus and Aleppo, has become a place for entertainment and sit-in protests against Israeli occupation.
"It's the city's most enormous gates, where shoppers and worshippers pass, and where Palestinians gather to celebrate in Ramadan, and that annoyed the [Israeli] occupation, which aims to weaken these activities in the old city," he said.
Israeli settlers also use the Damascus Gate to reach the Western Wall, to perform Jewish prayers, and "that's created tension between Palestinians and Israeli forces who want to secure empty stairs and plazas for settlers to reach their destination", Hidmi added.
Hidmi did not rule out the potential for other clashes in East Jerusalem.
Flashpoint of conflict
In May, Damascus Gate was one of the flashpoints that escalated into an armed conflict between Israel and Palestinian factions. Israel then prevented Palestinians from gathering in the area and carrying out events in the holy month of Ramadan, which led to clashes.
Israeli right-wing groups had also attempted to march in May through Damascus Gate, carrying hundreds of Israeli flags. However, the procession's route was altered and later cancelled when Palestinians fired rockets from the Gaza Strip towards the outskirts of occupied Jerusalem.
Tensions in East Jerusalem have been rising in the past two weeks, following several Israeli decisions and actions in the city.
An Israeli court ruled to allow "non-noticeable" Jewish prayers at al-Aqsa mosque, while settlers had increased their daily breaks in the al-Aqsa complex every day to expand the Jewish presence around the eastern part of the complex, and turn it into an exclusive Jewish prayer area.
Last week, clashes erupted in East Jerusalem after Israeli authorities razed part of a Palestinian cemetery, exposing human bones buried in a section where Jordanian soldiers killed during the 1967 war were laid to rest.
The Israeli government had also approved the first building of a new settlement in the city in 30 years, and its ministers attended a caucus with former US officials, held in a controversial building atop an Islamic cemetery, to promote normalisation deals with Arab countries.