Israeli police officers fire stun grenades towards Palestinian demonstrators during clashes at Damascus Gate just outside Jerusalems Old City, Saturday, May 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

JERUSALEM - Israeli police on Saturday clashed with Palestinian protesters outside Jerusalems Old City during the holiest night of Ramadan in a show of force that threatened to deepen the holy citys worst religious unrest in several years. Earlier, police blocked busloads of pilgrims headed to Jerusalem to worship.

Police defended their actions as security moves, but these were seen as provocations by Muslims who accuse Israel of threatening their freedom of worship. Competing claims to east Jerusalem, home to the citys most sensitive holy sites, lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have triggered serious violence in the past.

The unrest came a day after violence in which Palestinian medics said more than 200 Palestinians were wounded in clashes at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound and elsewhere in Jerusalem. Fridays violence drew condemnations from Israels Arab allies and calls for calm from the United States and Europe and the United Nations. The Arab League scheduled an emergency meeting on Monday.

Police chief Koby Shabtai said he had deployed more police in Jerusalem following Friday nights clashes, which left 18 police officers 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.

Saturday night was “Laylat al-Qadr” or the “Night of Destiny,” the most sacred in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Islamic authorities estimated 90,000 people gathered for intense nighttime prayers at Al-Aqsa, the third-holiest site in Islam.

A large crowd of protesters screamed “God is great” outside the Old Citys Damascus Gate, and police were pelted with rocks and water bottles. Police patrols fired stun grenades as they moved through the area, and a police truck periodically fired a water cannon.

Palestinian medics said 53 Palestinians were wounded, mostly by rubber bullets, stun grenades or beatings, among them a woman whose face was bloodied. Eight people were hospitalized, they said.

Earlier, police reported clashes in the Old City, near Al-Aqsa, and in the nearby east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where dozens of Palestinians are fighting attempts by Israeli settlers to evict them from their homes. Police reported several arrests, and said one officer was struck in the face with a rock.

Earlier Saturday, police stopped a convoy of buses that were filled with Arab citizens on the main highway heading to Jerusalem for Ramadan prayers. Israels public broadcaster Kan said police stopped the buses for a security check.

Muslims fast from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, and travellers, upset that they were stopped without explanation on a hot day, exited the buses and blocked the highway in protest. Kan showed footage of the protesters praying, chanting slogans and marching along the highway toward Jerusalem. The road was reopened several hours later.

Ibtasam Maraana, an Arab member of parliament, accused police of a “terrible attack” on freedom of religion. “Police: Remember that they are citizens, not enemies,” she wrote on Twitter.

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