RAMALLAH: At least 16 Palestinians were injured when Israeli police broke up a protest at Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem on Thursday after the site had been occupied by extremist settlers who raised Israeli flags.

Police arrested about 50 men after scuffles broke out during the demonstration, which came after at least 600 flag-waving settlers marched into the mosque courtyards earlier in the day.

The incident follows the resumption of Jewish visits to the flashpoint site and coincided with the anniversary of Israel’s 1948 independence.

Israeli police dispersed Palestinian protesters with batons and rubber bullets, and held others inside the mosque until tensions eased.

Earlier, the extremist Temple Mount organization called on Jews throughout Israel to celebrate the national anniversary by occupying the mosque courtyards.

Hundreds of young Palestinians at the site performed prayers and chanted slogans in protest against the settler groups, which included heads of Jewish religious schools.

Israeli police blocked young men from entering Al-Aqsa and arrested others who were taken to interrogation centers.

Jewish visits to Al-Aqsa had been suspended from April 22 until Thursday. 

Mohammed Al-Khalayleh, Jordan’s Islamic affairs minister, described the repeated storming of Al-Aqsa by Jewish extremists as “provocation” for world Muslims and urged Israeli authorities to clamp down on future incursions.

Omar Al-Kiswani, director of Al-Aqsa Mosque, said that Palestinians had sent a message that “Al-Aqsa is for Muslims, and our presence and steadfastness will remain.”

He said that the mosque “will not be a theater for elections and political strife to be used by the occupation government,” and added: “Al-Aqsa is higher than that.”

Palestinian factions accused Jewish settlers of “fanning of the flames of war against the Palestinian people and their sanctities,” and warned the Israeli government against allowing extremist Jews to storm the site.

Tariq Salmi, spokesperson for Islamic Jihad, said that Al-Aqsa worshippers represent “the first wall” against Israeli attempts to divide the religious site.

In its monthly report, the Islamic Christian Commission for Jerusalem and the Holy Sites said that 4,700 settlers stormed Al-Aqsa in April, while Israeli police arrested 775 Palestinians, including 30 children.

More than 180 Palestinians were injured in clashes with police, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

In Hebron, settlers raised Israeli flags and set off fireworks at Al-Ibrahimi mosque on Wednesday to celebrate Israel’s independence.

The Israeli Air Force on Thursday staged a flypast over the mosque for the first time since the occupation of Hebron in 1967.

According to Israeli media, the army is preparing for possible rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip targeting Israeli cities following the clashes at Al-Aqsa.

Ahmed Al-Ruwaidi, the Palestinian presidency adviser for Jerusalem affairs, blamed Israeli authorities for sponsoring settler incursions and warned of the threat of a religious war.

Observers believe that one of the goals of the Israeli escalation at Al-Aqsa is to weaken the Jordanian guardianship of Islamic and Christian holy sites, and keep Israel as the decision-maker.

Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas political bureau chief, said that the “Palestinian protectors of Al-Aqsa had forced Jewish extremists to lower their flags and to come out defeated.”

He added: “We will continue to face such situations on more than one front. Our people will not surrender, but will score more victories.”