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What's happening in Jerusalem

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Just before dawn on Friday, bright green and red flashes exploded violently within the walls of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. Videos circulating on social media show Israeli forces using tear gas and flash grenades at the holy site, which is on ground that's sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Israel says police were after Palestinians who were stockpiling stones and throwing them at Jews and police nearby. Palestinian medics say more than 150 Palestinians were injured. It was the worst violence at Al-Aqsa in a year, when it escalated into a war in Gaza.

To understand what happened, we're joined now by Steve Hendrix. He's the Washington Post bureau chief in Jerusalem, which is where he's joining us from now. Welcome.

STEVE HENDRIX: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So can you just start by telling us what exactly happened today inside Al-Aqsa?

HENDRIX: It was sort of what Israeli officials and Palestinian officials have been dreading. The Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque typically draws tens of thousands of worshippers from around Israel and the West Bank. And in this case, there were signs that some people were stockpiling stones, and the Israeli police knew this was a potential flashpoint. And when some fireworks began to go off and some rocks began to be thrown, they moved very aggressively to contain it. And then suddenly, there was quite a melee on the plaza.

And then the police actually moved into the mosque compound, which is a very, very provocative motion. But they thought it was necessary to protect the scene. And several people were injured, and more than 300 people were arrested.

CHANG: Yeah. And can you just put what happened this morning at Al-Aqsa into sort of bigger context for us? - because there has been rising tension between Palestinians and Israelis in recent weeks, right?

HENDRIX: Yeah. There have been attacks from Palestinians upon Israelis inside of Israel. And that has provoked a clampdown on Israel's side - a several-days-long campaign of raids into villages in the West Bank. And six Palestinians have been killed in just the last week, according to the Palestinian Authority. And it seems like it's sort of culminated this morning.

CHANG: Has the Israeli government said anything about the events this morning so far?

HENDRIX: Well, they have certainly condemned the violence. There's a real split in the Israeli governing coalition, which is spread from very right-wing parties, including the prime minister, Naftali Bennett, and all the way to left-wing and even one Arab Islamist party. So you hear different things from the government. Bennett has condemned the violence and actually said that Israelis should, you know, take up legally permitted arms and be ready to defend themselves and the country. And other members, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz, have said, we do have to respond, but we have to remember that not all the worshipers who come to Al-Aqsa Mosque are militants or terrorists. And we have to allow for freedom of worship...

CHANG: Yeah.

HENDRIX: ...In Jerusalem.

CHANG: And what about Muslim or Jewish faith leaders in the community? How have they responded to what happened this morning?

HENDRIX: Everyone condemns the violence, of course. But everyone also has their own particular context that they want to put it in. So when you talk to Jewish leaders, they feel very strongly that there needs to be, obviously, protection for Jewish citizens from what they call terrorist attacks. Muslim leaders condemn the violence but also say that there's no doubt that the provocations of the Israeli occupation are driving it.

It's a very old and cyclical story here. Every spring we kind of hear the same tale, and not much seems to change. But there are efforts going on to sort of control the most extreme activists on both sides and to keep the city open for worshipers from all three of the faiths who consider this a holy city.

CHANG: That is Steve Hendrix, the Washington Post bureau chief in Jerusalem. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us.

HENDRIX: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.