Israel bowed to international pressure and delayed the eviction of several Palestinian families from their East Jerusalem homes, as security services warned their expulsion could further inflame some of the worst violence in the Holy City for years.
The attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit on Sunday requested a deferral of a High Court hearing scheduled for Monday that appeared set to uproot dozens of Palestinian families living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood to make way for Israeli settlers.
Over the weekend, Israeli police beat hundreds of unarmed Palestinians and threw stun grenades into crowds — one fell into the prayer room of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque — in an effort to control protests that drew tens of thousands of Arabs.
Palestinians threw stones at policemen, lit fires and tore down barricades, as police charged on horseback and used rubber bullets and water cannons in consecutive nights of clashes. Eighteen police officers were injured, Israel said. More than 300 Palestinians required medical attention, Palestinian medics said.
Gulf and Arab nations condemned the actions of the Israeli security forces, while the US and EU allies expressed deep concerns. The anger was stoked by images of police using violence within the mosque’s compound, revered by Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, and by Jews as the Temple Mount.
“What the Israeli police and special forces are doing, from violations against the mosque to attacks on worshippers, is barbaric,” the Jordanian government, which has custodianship of the mosque, said on Sunday. Turkey called the actions “terrorism”.
The US asked the Israeli government to “approach the residents of Sheikh Jarrah with compassion and respect,” while avoiding evictions, home demolitions and settlements.
The evictions stem from a long-running case involving a dispute over the ownership of land in the middle-class Arab neighbourhood. A Jewish trust bought the land legally during the Ottoman Era in the 1870s, which was then razed by the Jordanian government after it took control of East Jerusalem in the 1948 war.
The Palestinian families facing eviction moved — also legally, according to the Jordanian government — into the houses before Israel took East Jerusalem in 1967. While Israeli law allows citizens to reclaim land lost in Jerusalem to Arabs during the 1948 war, it does not allow Palestinians to do the same.
Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister, told reporters that Israel’s biblical links to Jerusalem strengthen its claim to the city.
“We emphatically reject the pressures not to build in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, these pressures have been increasing of late,” he said ahead of a cabinet meeting. “Just as every people builds its capital and in its capital, so too do we reserve the right to build Jerusalem and in Jerusalem.”
Without naming the US, where progressive Democrat lawmakers and President Joe Biden’s administration called on Israel to show restraint, he added: “I say to our best friends as well: Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.”
Israeli media reported that the attorney-general appended a secret document to his request for a deferral, citing the opinion of security services that evictions could spur spiralling violence.
The deferral of the High Court hearing buys Israel time to try to quell rising anger among Palestinians enraged by Israeli police actions in the old city of Jerusalem during the holy month of Ramadan. These included restrictions at the ancient Damascus Gate entrance to the Muslim quarter.
On Saturday, thousands of Arab Israelis were forced to walk to Jerusalem after police stopped busloads of Muslim worshippers on the highway, saying they were searching for agitators. While some 90,000 worshippers were able to attend Saturday prayers at al-Aqsa, this was a much lower number than normal.
Jerusalem was braced for more violence during Monday’s Jerusalem Day celebrations, when Israel commemorates its capture of the Holy City, the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six Day War.
While relatively peaceful in the rest of the country, it is an annual flash point between Arabs and rightwing Jewish settlers, who march through East Jerusalem under police protection and into the Muslim quarter of the old city to the Western Wall. Police are considering whether to curtail the march, local media reported.