Hundreds of Israeli settlers Thursday stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the occupied East Jerusalem amid protests by Jerusalem-based Muslim bodies, Palestinian officials said.
"Three hundred and eighty-five settlers stormed the mosque while being heavily guarded by Israeli police," Firas al-Debs, a media official in Jerusalem's Islamic Endowments Department, told Anadolu Agency.
A total of 252 settlers stormed the mosque in the morning while another 132 stormed it again after the Zuhr prayer — one of five daily prayers in Islam — he added.
The settlers tried many provocations, including an attempt to perform Talmudic rituals and an attempt to attack the mosque guards, while two youths were arrested in the mosque's courtyard for half an hour before they were asked to leave, he added.
Al-Debs also said the Israeli police imposed restrictions on the entry of a number of young men into the mosque.Settlers have intensified their attempts to breach the mosque since Monday's Jewish Passover holiday.
Jerusalem-based Muslim bodies condemned the incursions, saying they aim to change Al-Aqsa's historical character.
"We cannot accept such arbitrary, barbaric … measures under the pretext of Jewish holidays," Jerusalem's Department of Islamic Waqf (Endowment) and Islamic Higher Council, as well as Dar Al-Ifta and the Supreme Islamic Council, said in a joint statement.
"The Israeli police are sweeping the Al-Aqsa Mosque and allowing extremists to break into it and are overlooking their performance of Talmudic prayers and their obvious provocations by imposing a policy of fait accompli by the force of occupation and the power of arms."
The Muslim bodies also accused the Israeli police of launching a "campaign of arrests and expulsion of worshipers" from the mosque for varying periods, imposing a siege on Jerusalem and the Old City, and tightening the siege on the gates of the mosque.
"We reject and denounce all actions and attempts aimed at changing the historical reality at the Al-Aqsa Mosque," said the statement.
Thousands of Israeli troops have been deployed in East Jerusalem since Saturday morning to protect Jews at the Al-Buraq Wall, west of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which Israel calls the Wailing Wall.
The Israeli police said in a statement that tens of thousands of Jews had come to the wall to perform the ritual (blessing of the priests) "which is part of Passover celebrations".
For Muslims, Al-Aqsa represents the world's third holiest site. Jews, for their part, refer to the area as the "Temple Mount," claiming it was the site of two Jewish temples in ancient times.
Some extremist Jewish groups have called for the demolition of the Al-Aqsa Mosque so that a Jewish temple might be built in its place.
In September 2000, a visit to the flashpoint religious site by late Israeli politician Ariel Sharon sparked what later became known as the "Second Intifada," a popular Palestinian uprising in which thousands of people were killed.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem — in which the Al-Aqsa is located — during the 1967 Middle East War. It later annexed the entire city in 1980, unilaterally claiming it as the capital of the self-proclaimed Jewish state.