Tensions ran high at the Al-Aqsa compound in East Jerusalem on Wednesday morning as a group of right-wing Israeli Jews entered the area under heavy police escort, witnesses and security guards said.
The tour comes amid weeks of clashes in the area -- the third holiest site in Islam -- as Israeli forces have repeatedly escorted Jewish groups and limited Muslim worship, while Israeli parliamentarians prepare a vote to open the area to Jewish prayer, despite the existence of a Jewish prayer area at the adjacent Western Wall.
According to Palestinian guards at the compound, a large number of Israeli police officers and intelligence agents accompanied dozens of "extremists affiliated to the "Temple Institute" group, which is dedicated to the destruction of the Al-Aqsa mosque and the construction of a Jewish temple.
Eyewitnesses said the Israelis performed Jewish religious rites including "singing and dancing" near Bab al-Rahma (Gate of Mercy), also known as the Golden Gate. During the rites, witnesses added, the Israelis verbally attacked Muslim worshipers.
The eyewitnesses said that the director of the Al-Aqsa Mosque along with security guards and worshipers confronted the visitors, "forcing Israeli police officers to move them out" after having initially failed to do so.
Visits to the Al-Aqsa compound by Israelis are conducted under the supervision of the Israeli police, who allow right-wing Jews into the holy place as "foreign tourists."
Mainstream Jewish officials consider it forbidden to enter the area, which is believed to be built over the site of a temple destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago, but right-wing nationalist Jews do not.
All visits are made through the Moroccan Gate between 7:30-11 a.m. or 1:30-2:30 p.m., according to the administration of the Al-Aqsa mosque.
Separately, an Israeli female soldier attacked a Palestinian woman near the Chain Gate, creating a state of chaos and tension between worshipers and Israeli troops and police officers.
Because of the sensitive nature of the Al-Aqsa compound, Israel maintains a compromise with the Islamic trust that controls it to not allow non-Muslim prayers in the area. Israeli forces regularly escort Jewish visitors to the site, leading to tension with Palestinian worshipers.
The compound, which sits just above the Western Wall plaza, houses both the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque and is the third holiest site in Islam.
It is also venerated as Judaism's most holy place as it sits where Jews believe the First and Second Temples once stood. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
Al-Aqsa is located in East Jerusalem, a part of the internationally recognized Palestinian territories that have been occupied by the Israeli military since 1967.