Police close Temple Mount to Jews on Jerusalem Day, set to decide on Flag March

Police decided Monday morning to bar Jews from entering Jerusalem’s Temple Mount flashpoint holy site on Jerusalem Day, and were set to also rule on whether to allow a planned celebratory parade by nationalist Jews, amid warnings from security officials that the Flag March could lead to a further escalation in violence.

Major clashes began in the morning at the Temple Mount, as police entered the compound after thousands of Palestinians gathered there overnight, collecting rocks and other makeshift weapons. Officers were attacked and responded with stun grenades, police said. Police added that dozens of rioters were hurling rocks from the Temple Mount to a road south of the compound, blocking the road but causing no injuries or damage.

Sunday night saw fierce clashes between Palestinian protesters and police in Jerusalem. At least 25 people were wounded and 23 people arrested.

The Temple Mount is considered holy by both Muslims and Jews. The site contains the Al-Aqsa Mosque — the third holiest site in Islam — and is revered by Jews as their holiest site, where both biblical Temples stood. Jews have been barred from entering the site in recent days amid the tensions, which coincide with the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

“After a security assessment which concluded a short while ago… the police commissioner [Kobi Shabtai] decided at this stage not to hold visits within the Temple Mount,” police said in a statement Monday morning, referring to the entry of Jews. Jews are usually allowed to visit the compound on certain hours on weekdays, under numerous restrictions, but not to pray there.

Reports and photos from the site indicated that tens of thousands of Palestinians had spent the night on the Temple Mount, gathering rocks and barricading the door of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The police announcement came shortly before the scheduled start of the visits and after hundreds of Jews had already made their way toward the Temple Mount. It drew outrage from several right-wing lawmakers.

“This is a disgrace,” said Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman on Twitter. “On the Temple Mount, the [Islamic] Waqf is purposefully organizing acts of terror and murder under our nose, and nobody says anything. I will come this morning to the Mount’s entry.”

Religious Zionism’s extremist MK Itamar Ben Gvir said that “violence and thuggery have scored a victory,” placing the blame on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana and declaring he won’t agree to vote with the ruling Likud party on any laws or decrees this week in protest.

“I have no reason to vote this week with those who make decisions of capitulation,” he said.

Israeli security forces deploy next to the Dome of the Rock mosque amid clashes with Palestinian protesters at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem, on May 7, 2021. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Lawmakers from the Yamina party also condemned the decision, with MK Matan Kahana saying the Temple Mount “should be a safe place open to Jews and members of all religions” and MK Amichai Chikli calling it “capitulation to Palestinian violence and terrorism.”

Tom Nisani, chairman of the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation, called on Jewish pilgrims to “continue arriving at the entrance to the Mount to ascend it on Jerusalem’s day of celebration.

“If there are rioters on the Temple Mount, the threat must be removed and the Mount must be reopened,” he added.

The police statement said thousands of officers had been deployed throughout Jerusalem and its Old City since early Monday morning “to secure the events and to protect the public’s safety.”

Shabtai late Sunday said he hoped the Flag March would go ahead as planned and was doing everything he could to ensure this, the Walla news site reported.

Jerusalem Police District Commander Doron Turgeman said on Sunday night that a final decision on whether to change the route of the march would not be made until a situational assessment in morning.

The march, which annually draws tens of thousands of participants, usually proceeds into the Old City via Damascus Gate and on through the Muslim Quarter to the Western Wall. However, the Damascus Gate area and Old City have seen days of clashes, including a major eruption of violence on the Temple Mount on Friday night.

Jerusalem has seen violent nights for the past week. Demonstrators have been protesting over tensions surrounding the Mount as well as the pending eviction of Palestinians from East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood every night for the past week.

Israeli police officers clash with Palestinian protesters near Damascus Gate just outside Jerusalem’s Old City, Sunday, May 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The protests have devolved into clashes with police, with security forces using high-pressure water cannons, rubber-tipped bullets, and sound grenades to disperse the demonstrators.

But matters came to a head on Friday night when police clashed with Palestinians on the Temple Mount, with dozens of people wounded.

Jerusalem Day celebrates Israel’s unification of Jerusalem, with the capture of East Jerusalem and the Old City from Jordan in the 1967 war. The march is widely perceived as provocative, as hardline nationalist Israelis, guarded by police, walk through the Damascus Gate of the Old City and through the Muslim Quarter to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.

This year the march coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time of heightened religious sensitivities, and follows weeks of clashes. That, combined with Palestinian anger over the eviction plan in the nearby Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, could set the stage for an especially volatile day.

Amos Gilad, a former senior defense official, told Army Radio that the parade should be canceled or at least kept away from Damascus Gate, saying “the powder keg is burning and can explode at any time.” Israel’s public broadcaster Kan said the final route of the parade had not yet been decided.

Security officials reportedly warned the cabinet on Sunday that the Flag March could lead to a further escalation in violence.

Palestinian protesters hurl stones at Israeli security forces amid clashes in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 8, 2021. (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)

Addressing a special cabinet meeting ahead of Jerusalem Day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel “will not allow any extremists to destabilize the calm in Jerusalem. We will enforce law and order decisively and responsibly.”

“We will continue to maintain freedom of worship for all faiths, but we will not allow violent disturbances,” he said. At the same time, he said, “We emphatically reject the pressures not to build in Jerusalem.”

Late Sunday, the United States again expressed its “serious concerns” about the situation in Jerusalem, including clashes between Palestinian worshippers in Jerusalem’s Old City, home to sites sacred by Muslims and Jews, and Israeli police, as well as the expected evictions of 4 Palestinian families.

Washington made its concerns during a phone call between National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat. Sullivan urged Israel “to pursue appropriate measures to ensure calm during Jerusalem Day commemorations,” according to a statement by National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne.

Israel captured East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in the 1967 war. The Palestinians seek all three areas for a future state, with East Jerusalem as their capital.

The violence, along with the planned evictions in East Jerusalem, have drawn condemnations from Israel’s Arab allies and expressions of concern from the United States, Europe and the United Nations.

People hold Hamas flags as Palestinians gather at the Dome of the Rock after praying on the last Friday of Ramadan, to protest over the possible eviction of several Palestinian families from homes on land claimed by Jews in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, May 7, 2021. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

The UN Security Council was set to meet on Jerusalem violence later Monday.

There were also signs the violence was beginning to spread.

Late Sunday, Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip fired four rockets toward Israel, setting off air raid sirens in the southern city of Ashkelon and nearby areas, the IDF said. It said one rocket was intercepted, while two others exploded inside Gaza. Early Monday, Israeli tanks and artillery struck several Hamas posts near the border in retaliation for the rocket fire. There were no reports of injuries.

Earlier in the day, Israel carried out an airstrike on a Hamas post in response to another rocket attack. Gazan protesters affiliated with Hamas also launched incendiary balloons into southern Israel during the day, causing dozens of fires.

With tensions high, the Israeli Supreme Court postponed a decision on the possible evictions in Sheikh Jarrah. The decision had been expected for Monday, but was pushed back by up to 30 days in light of “circumstances,” the court said

The flare-up in hostilities comes at a crucial point in Israel’s political crisis after longtime leader Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition. His opponents are now working to build an alternate government. If they succeed, Netanyahu would be pushed to the opposition for the first time in 12 years.

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