Three Jewish Israeli men have been indicted for praying at Jerusalem’s flashpoint Temple Mount compound last year, drawing right-wing accusations that the government is stifling freedom of worship at Judaism’s holiest site.
The three defendants — two of whom are Israel Defense Forces soldiers — are charged with disrupting public order and disturbing police officers in the fulfillment of their duties.
The Temple Mount — the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest for Muslims, who refer to it as Al-Aqsa or the Noble Sanctuary — is the most volatile site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian leadership — as well as Jordan, which has a special role at the site under to its peace agreement with Israel — reject the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount and regard all entry to it by religious Jews as a “provocation.”
Located in the Old City, which Israel says is part of its undivided capital and which the Palestinians claim as part of East Jerusalem, the capital of their future state, it is one of the main flashpoints of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Jews can enter the compound on weekdays during limited hours and on a predetermined route under heavy supervision by police and Jordan’s Islamic Waqf, and face significant restrictions such as a ban on praying, appearing to pray, displaying religious or national symbols, and drinking from the water fountains.
The indictment, filed Sunday at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, says the men were arrested on September 17, 2018, after they bowed down in front of the Dome of the Rock and called out the Jewish prayer “Shema Yisrael,” violating the rules currently in place at the holy site.
As police officers detained them and escorted them outside the compound, the charge sheet adds, the men slowed down and continued calling out “Shema Yisrael,” after which Muslims at the site gathered around and start shouting out against Jews.
The Muslims were not arrested, but five Muslim activists were arrested the next day for trying to obstruct a group of Jews entering the site.
Both incidents occurred shortly before the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur. Tensions often run high around Jewish holidays, which often see an uptick in the number of Jewish visitors to the site.
One of the defendants, identified as Nahshon Amit, told Army Radio on Tuesday: “The content of the indictment is absurd. The State of Israel prides itself time after time on freedom of worship, and that isn’t correct.”
The lawyer for one of the defendants, Moshe Polski of the right-wing Honenu legal aid organization, said Sunday that “this is an outrageous indictment. It is inconceivable that in the State of Israel saying ‘Shema Yisrael’ is considered a criminal offense, no matter how we look at it.
“The police argument that the prayer or bowing down endangers public order is unacceptable. If there are violent elements, police should ban them from the site. The police cannot be afraid that the Waqf will instigate disruptions of public order and therefore accuse the Jews of disrupting public order.”
The Israel Police commented that is was “taking ongoing action to preserve law and order and prevent illegal actions disrupting public order. After the investigation was concluded and in line with the evidence, it was decided to file charges, as has happened in many other cases in the past.”