Dozens of Israeli settlers have forced their way into the flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque complex in occupied East Jerusalem to mark the fifth day of Sukkot, according to the Islamic Waqf Department.
Since Sunday, thousands of settlers have been carrying out provocative tours of the mosque complex following calls by ultranationalist Jewish groups.
According to Jewish law, entering any part of the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, also known as the Temple Mount, is forbidden for Jews due to the sacred nature of the site.
Sukkot is a weeklong holiday, which started on September 29 and will continue until Friday.
Israeli settlers stormed the complex on Wednesday in groups through the al-Mughrabi Gate by the Western Wall near Al-Aqsa Mosque and attempted to perform “Talmudic rituals”, according to a Waqf official.
Police imposed age restrictions and prevented young Palestinians from entering the mosque during the incursions, witnesses told the Anadolu news agency.
The Israeli army forced Palestinians to shut down their stores in the Old City to allow Jewish prayers to take place. The Palestinian Wafa news agency reported that Israeli forces prevented a number of Waqf employees from entering the holy Islamic site in the morning.
Meanwhile, Israeli police on Wednesday arrested five people suspected of spitting towards Christians or churches in the Old City of Jerusalem and formed a special investigative team to deal with growing complaints of hostile gestures against Christians.
“Unfortunately, we witness the continued disgraceful acts of hatred towards Christians in the Old City of Jerusalem, primarily through spitting by extremists,” said Jerusalem District Commander Doron Turgeman on Wednesday.
No details were provided on the identities of the people arrested.
Members of the area’s small Christian community have said they have faced growing harassment and intimidation from Jewish ultranationalists, particularly since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government took office late last year.
Wednesday’s arrests came as the city prepared for its annual Jerusalem March, an event that usually draws huge crowds, including thousands of Christian pilgrims.
The spitting scene, captured on Monday by a reporter at Israel’s left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, shows a group of foreign pilgrims beginning their procession through the limestone labyrinth of the Old City in occupied East Jerusalem, home to the holiest ground in Judaism, the third-holiest shrine in Islam and major Christian sites.
Raising a giant wooden cross, the men and women retraced the Old City route that they believe Jesus Christ took before his crucifixion. Along the way, ultra-Orthodox Jews in dark suits and broad-brimmed black hats squeezed past the pilgrims through narrow alleyways, their ritual palm fronds for the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot in hand.
As they streamed by, at least seven ultra-Orthodox Jews spat on the ground beside the Christian tour group.
The incident, which the city’s minority Christian community lamented as the latest in an alarming surge of religiously motivated attacks, drew rare outrage from Netanyahu and other senior officials on Tuesday.
Al Jazeera’s Rob Reynolds, reporting from the Old City in occupied East Jerusalem, said the incident “came on the heels of an incident earlier this year, a couple of weeks ago where more video tapes showed people spitting at some Orthodox Greek nuns outside a place of worship, a church.
“The government of Israel including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials quickly condemned the spitting incidents, saying they had no place in Israel. However, other figures in the ultranationalist Israeli movement said that actually spitting at Christians is a legitimate Jewish tradition with a long history,” Reynolds said.
Since Israel’s most conservative government in history came to power late last year, concerns have mounted among religious leaders – including the influential Vatican-appointed Latin Patriarch – over the increasing harassment of the region’s 2,000-year-old Christian community.
Roughly 15,000 Christians live in Jerusalem today.