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Dozens of Palestinians wounded in confrontations with police at sacred site in Israel

“Everyone was running and a few young men took rocks and started throwing the rocks at the soldiers, and it escalated,” said witness, Mariam Yassin.
Tear gas billows amid clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, on Friday.AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP - Getty Images

JERUSALEM — Dozens of people were seriously injured at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound Friday as violence erupted ahead of a special evening prayer held during the holy month of Ramadan, Palestinian health officials and Israeli police said Saturday.

Most of the injuries were to the face and eyes and appeared to be caused by rubber bullets, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent told NBC News by telephone. They added that 205 people were injured, 88 of them seriously. Several are in critical condition, they said.

A field hospital was set up to treat the wounded at the compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, the spokesperson said. The compound is known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as Temple Mount.

Image: Al-Aqsa Mosque compound
A Palestinian man prays as Israeli police gather during violence at the compound that houses Al-Aqsa Mosque, in Jerusalem's Old City, on Friday.AMMAR AWAD / Reuters

Of the 17 police officers treated by medical staff, around half needed further treatment in hospital, an Israeli police spokeswoman said in a statement.

Ahead of the evening prayer, hundreds of "rioters" began "throwing stones, various objects and firing fireworks at police forces near one of the Temple Mount gates," she said.

She added that officers were then ordered to enter the compound and "restore order." After the prayer, she said the violence resumed and some people barricaded themselves inside the mosque before they were later evacuated.

NBC News witnessed non-lethal stun grenades exploding and saw a rubber bullet on the floor, as well as Palestinians throwing objects at security forces. Many Muslims continued to pray as violence erupted around them.

Video footage from inside Al-Aqsa mosque showed commotion as loud bangs punctured the air. Another appeared to show Israeli security personnel walking through a prayer area.

Mariam Yassin, 27, who was inside the Al Aqsa mosque compound Friday, said at around 8 p.m. local time (1 p.m. ET), Israeli security forces threw sound grenades towards a group of Muslim worshippers chanting religious songs.

“Everyone was running and a few young men took rocks and started throwing the rocks at the soldiers, and it escalated,” she said.

Earlier, tens of thousands of worshippers had attended the final Friday afternoon prayers of Ramadan, according to the Islamic Waqf authority that oversees the Islamic section of the compound which has triggered confrontations for centuries.

Al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, is situated in a 37-acre esplanade known to Palestinians as al-Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary. In Judaism, the Temple Mount is the religion's holiest site, tied to its history as the site of First and Second Temples.

The violence at the holy site came after a bloody week in the Israeli occupied West Bank and ahead of a crucial court case in a long-running legal battle involving the homes of four Palestinian families on land claimed by Jewish settlers in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

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There have been regular protests over the month of Ramadan about their threatened eviction and the case is set to be heard by Israel’s Supreme Court on Monday.

Israel captured east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza, in a 1967 Six-Day war with its Arab neighbors. Israel later annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized by the majority of the international community and views the entire city as its capital. Palestinians want east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza, as part of a future Palestinian state.

A law passed by Israel’s parliament in 1970 allows for property previously owned by Jewish people in east Jerusalem to be reclaimed, although Palestinians have no such right to reclaim property in west Jerusalem.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Friday that the United States was "extremely concerned" about ongoing confrontations in Jerusalem. "We call on Israeli and Palestinian officials to act decisively to deescalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence," he said in a statement. "Leaders across the spectrum must denounce all violent acts."

Calling on the international community to stop the "aggression," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Friday that he held the Israeli government "fully responsible for the dangerous developments and the attacks that are taking place."

Meanwhile, Gaza's ruling Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union, said Palestinian youth were calling for a day of "outrage" Saturday and the "return of harsh field combat" in response to the events in Jerusalem, according to Al-Aqsa television channel that is controlled by the group.

Lawahez Jabari reported from Jerusalem, Saphora Smith, Matthew Mulligan and Raf Sanchez from London, and Suzanne Ciechalski and Rima Abdelkader from New York.