Worshippers celebrate in tense Jerusalem as violence surges

Clergy men attend a mass on Easter Sunday at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on April 4, 2023AFP

Thousands of worshippers held celebrations in a tense Jerusalem Sunday, as Christian Easter coincided with Jewish Passover and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, against a backdrop of surging Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Leading Easter Mass at the Vatican, Pope Francis expressed “deep concern” Sunday over the flare-up in tensions sparked by an Israeli police raid last week on Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.

Israel has since struck targets in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria in response to rocket fire mostly blamed on Palestinian militants. Separate attacks in the occupied West Bank and Israeli city of Tel Aviv have killed three people, including an Italian tourist.

On Sunday pilgrims crowded into the narrow alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City, flanked by armed Israeli security forces deployed following the deadly attacks.

Celebrants packed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

“(I had) some doubt, taking into consideration recent events, but still I decided to go,” said 50-year-old Paulius Majauskas, visiting from Lithuania.

Nearby, thousands of Jewish pilgrims gathered for the traditional priestly blessing of Passover.

Judy Green, 60, said the blessing was “beautiful, very uplifting” at the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray.

“I feel that God will protect us, we’re all praying together as one people,” she said.

The Western Wall lies in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and sits below the Temple Mount, the most sacred site to Jews, known to Muslims as Al-Haram al-Sharif.

The compound is home to Al-Aqsa mosque, the focal point for Ramadan celebrations.

An AFP journalist saw more than 500 religious Jews enter the site Sunday morning under police escort while Muslims prayed nearby, without any clashes.

‘This is our place’

Israeli-Palestinian violence had already intensified since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government took power in December, and the latest surge came after he late last month announced a “pause” for dialogue on judicial reform legislation which split the nation and caused divisions in his government.

Muslims fear his hard-right government may change longstanding rules that allow Jews to visit but not pray at the Al-Aqsa compound, despite his repeated denials.

In recent years, the number of Jews visiting the esplanade has increased and ultranationalists sometimes pray there surreptitiously.

Israeli police stormed the mosque’s prayer hall in a violent pre-dawn raid Wednesday they said was aimed at dislodging “law-breaking youths and masked agitators”.

Mahmud Mansour, a Palestinian Muslim, criticised the police actions.

“This is our place. We have to stay in the evening, in the night, and this is Ramadan—we have to pray,” the 65-year-old told AFP near the mosque compound.

The raid followed reports that Jewish activists were intending to hold a traditional Passover sacrifice at the compound—a banned practice which a top Israeli rabbi has moved to prevent.

The day after the raid, more than 30 rockets were fired from Lebanon towards Israel, which the Israeli army blamed on Palestinian groups.

Israel then bombarded Gaza and southern Lebanon.

The Israeli army also said it launched strikes on targets in Syria Sunday morning, after rockets fired from there landed in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Lebanese militant group Hezbollah on Sunday said its leader Hassan Nasrallah had met in Beirut with the chief of Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

The two discussed “the intensification of resistance in the West Bank and Gaza” and “events at Al-Aqsa mosque”, according to the statement, which did not specify when they met.

Funerals for victims

Grief-stricken Israelis gathered Sunday for the funeral of two sisters, aged 16 and 20, who were killed Friday when their car came under fire in the West Bank, where they lived in a Jewish settlement.

The mother of the British-Israeli sisters was seriously wounded in the attack.

The West Bank, occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War, is home to hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers who live in state-approved settlements considered illegal under international law.

Hours after Friday’s shooting, an Italian tourist was killed and seven others wounded in a suspected car-ramming attack in Tel Aviv.

On Saturday, Israeli troops shot dead a 20-year-old Palestinian man in the West Bank.

The army said soldiers shot at suspects who threw an “explosive device” towards them, while the Palestinian health ministry said the man suffered bullet wounds to the chest and abdomen.

Hundreds turned out to attend his funeral Sunday, including masked militants holding guns.

This year the conflict has claimed the lives of at least 93 Palestinians, 18 Israelis, one Ukrainian and one Italian, according to an AFP count based on Israeli and Palestinian official sources.

These figures include, on the Palestinian side, combatants and civilians, including minors, and on the Israeli side, mostly civilians, including minors, and three members of the Arab minority.