Palestinian photojournalist Mohammed Ateeq was covering the Israeli attacks against worshippers in the courtyards of Al-Aqsa Mosque last week when the security forces shot him in the back with rubber-coated steel bullets. He and his colleagues were also injured by shrapnel from stun grenades fired directly at them by the Israeli forces, who also fired tear gas, leading to journalists and worshippers alike fainting and suffocating at the holy site. These attacks began on Friday, 7 May.
According to Sheikh Azzam Al-Khatib, Director General of the Islamic Endowments Department in Jerusalem, on that day about 70,000 Palestinians performed the fourth and final Friday prayer of Ramadan at Al-Aqsa Mosque in the occupied city, despite Israeli restrictions.
"The large number of worshippers raised concerns from the Israeli authorities, especially because there were plans for 30,000 Israeli settlers to celebrate a Jewish holiday a couple of days later, called Jerusalem Day," Ateeq told me. The Israeli attack on the mosque was an attempt to empty the sanctuary.
"The Israeli forces stormed Al-Aqsa and targeted people while they were praying," he recalled. "The duration of the prayer was two hours. Over the course of those two hours, the casualties mounted up. Half of the worshippers were praying, and the other half tried to protect them from the attacks." More than 70 per cent of the worshippers were expelled from the mosque and forced to leave the Noble Sanctuary.
"Monday was the day of the big storming after three days of continuous attacks on the worshippers," explained Ateeq. "Three thousand soldiers entered the mosque, the first time for such a huge number to do so since the uprising in 2000. Many people were wounded, as the soldiers aimed deliberately at their heads, faces and eyes. I saw people who lost their eyes. Everyone was a target, and the intention was clearly to injure people."
The UN humanitarian affairs office in the occupied Palestinian territories (OCHA) said that the Israeli forces wounded 1,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem between 7 and 10 May. "The real number of injuries is much more than the reported official numbers. Most of the cases like mine weren't recorded because we didn't go to hospitals in case we were arrested," Ateeq pointed out.
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Just two weeks before the attacks on the mosque, he was indeed arrested while en route to the second Friday prayer of Ramadan at Al-Aqsa Mosque. He was only released five days later and forced to sign a pledge that he would be detained for a month and fined 1,000 shekels if he was caught entering the occupied territories again, including Al-Aqsa.
The Israeli police closed the doors of the Qibli Mosque inside the Al-Aqsa compound with chains despite the presence of worshippers, including children, inside, alleged Ateeq. "The Israelis locked the worshippers inside Al-Aqsa Mosque as they tried to escape the attacks. They broke the windows of the mosque through which they fired stun grenades and tear gas bombs at those sheltering there."
As well as attacking worshippers and journalists, the Israeli forces also targeted Palestinian medical staff who attempted to offer first aid and recover casualties. The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said in a statement published on 11 May that the Israeli forces also damaged two ambulances.
"The intention was clearly to block any medical aid being given to the victims of the attacks," said Ateeq. Loudspeaker appeals from the Imams at the mosque to end the violence went unheeded. "I started to cry because of the feeling of helplessness. It was so painful."
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It is Ateeq's belief that what is happening at Al-Aqsa is an attempt by the Israeli occupation authorities to end Islamic worship in the mosque and transform it into a tourist attraction only.
"They want to impose a temporal and spatial division of Al-Aqsa Mosque compound: morning and noon for illegal Jewish settlers, and the afternoon for the Muslims," he concluded.