Israel’s supreme court has delayed a deeply contentious decision on whether Jewish settlers can evict Palestinians by force from their homes, after some of the worst unrest in Jerusalem in years during which hundreds of Palestinians have been wounded in confrontations with the police.
The latest clashes erupted outside the Old City overnight on Saturday, and a former Israeli defence official described the atmosphere as like a powder keg ready to explode at any time.
At least 120 people were injured, including a one-year-old child, and 14 were taken to hospital, according to the Palestine Red Crescent. Israeli police said 17 officers were hurt.
Islamic authorities estimated 90,000 people had gathered for night-time prayers at the holy city’s al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Saturday night’s violence came a day after more than 200 people were wounded in fighting around the mosque, prompting international calls for calm.
Tensions in Jerusalem had soared in recent days, before the expected Israeli court ruling on Monday on whether authorities can evict dozens of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and give their homes to Jewish settlers.
On Sunday afternoon, in light of the tensions and after a request from the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, the supreme court agreed to delay the hearing. It said it should be held within a month.
Still, the hiatus might not be enough to end the crisis. Inflaming the situation, Israelis will mark Jerusalem Day on Monday, celebrating the anniversary of when troops captured the city in 1967, including its majority-Arab neighbourhoods.
Amos Gilad, an ex-head of military intelligence and former top defence ministry official, said the parade should be cancelled or rerouted. “The powder keg is burning and can explode at any time,” he told Army Radio.
Palestinians have also complained of oppressive restrictions on gatherings during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Police defended their actions after dispersing a protest in Sheikh Jarrah on Saturday night, where demonstrators had thrown stones at security forces. Earlier, before Laylat al-Qadr, considered to be the holiest night during Ramadan, police had blocked busloads of pilgrims headed to Jerusalem to worship.
Palestinian medics said Palestinians were wounded by rubber bullets, stun grenades or beatings, among them a woman whose face was bloodied.
Police chief Kobi Shabtai said he had deployed more officers in Jerusalem after Friday night’s clashes, which left 18 police wounded. After weeks of nightly violence, Israelis and Palestinians were bracing for more conflict in the coming days.
“The right to demonstrate will be respected but public disturbances will be met with force and zero tolerance. I call on everyone to act responsibly and with restraint,” Shabtai said.
On the frontier with Gaza, troops fired teargas towards Palestinian protesters, as officials said three incendiary balloons were launched into Israel, causing fires but no injuries.
On Friday, riot police stormed the al-Aqsa mosque compound after they said Palestinians threw rocks and fireworks at officers.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, defended the police actions. “Israel is acting responsibly to ensure respect for law and order in Jerusalem while allowing freedom of worship,” he said in a meeting of security officials.
The violence was the worst in years at al-Aqsa, Islam’s holiest site after Mecca and Medina. Jerusalem has long been the centre of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, with its holy sites revered by Jews and Muslims.
The Old City’s Western Wall forms part of the holiest site in Judaism – the Temple Mount. It is equally part of the al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, however, with the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque above it.
Palestinians have held nightly protests in Sheikh Jarrah against an attempt by Israeli settlers to take over Arab homes.
Dozens of Arab Israeli protesters gathered across Israel in solidarity with Sheikh Jarrah residents, holding up signs that read “the occupation is terrorism”.
A reporter for Israeli public TV tweeted footage of a Jewish driver whose car was attacked with stones and windows shattered at the entrance to Sheikh Jarrah on Saturday.
The Islamist movement Hamas, which rules Gaza, urged Palestinians to remain at al-Aqsa until Ramadan ends, saying: “The resistance is ready to defend al-Aqsa at any cost”.
The quartet of envoys from the EU, Russia, US and the United Nations expressed deep concern over the violence. “We call upon Israeli authorities to exercise restraint,” they wrote.
The US said it was extremely concerned and urged both sides to “avoid steps that exacerbate tensions or take us farther away from peace”.
The EU called on the authorities “to act urgently to de-escalate the current tensions”.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said he held the Israeli government responsible for the unrest and voiced “full support for our heroes in al-Aqsa”.
Yair Lapid, an Israeli politician attempting to form a coalition government to replace Netanyahu, backed the police. “The state of Israel will not let violence run loose and definitely will not allow terror groups to threaten it,” he tweeted.
The al-Aqsa clashes drew sharp rebukes across the Arab and Muslim world.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, denounced Israel as a “cruel terrorist state” in a speech in Ankara on Saturday, calling on the UN to intervene to “stop the persecution”.
Jordan condemned Israel’s “barbaric attack” and Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, Pakistan and Qatar were among Muslim countries that criticised Israeli forces for the confrontation.
Israel also drew criticism from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, two countries that signed normalisation accords with the Jewish state last year.
Iran called on the UN to condemn the Israeli police actions, calling the actions of Israeli police a “war crime”.