AG said to oppose broad Ramadan limits on Temple Mount access for Arab Israelis

Gali Baharav-Miara tells ministers sweeping bans shouldn’t be applied to citizens; expert calls for individual interdictions, warns blanket restriction could inflame Arab street

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

File: Tens of thousands of Muslim worshipers pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound atop the Temple Mount during the holy month of Ramadan, Jerusalem's Old City, April 17, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90/File)
File: Tens of thousands of Muslim worshipers pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound atop the Temple Mount during the holy month of Ramadan, Jerusalem's Old City, April 17, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90/File)

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara reportedly cautioned against a proposal by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to impose age limitations on Arab Israelis who wish to pray at the Al-Aqsa compound atop the Temple Mount during Ramadan, saying that such a step would likely face legal obstacles.

At a cabinet meeting on Sunday, according to numerous Hebrew media reports, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to have sided with the firebrand minister and to have instructed security officials to present options for age criteria and quotas. However, Baharav-Miara raised concerns that age-based limitations may not be legally viable when applied to Israeli citizens, according to a Channel 12 report.

The Shin Bet security agency also reportedly opposed the measure, while the police force, which is under Ben Gvir’s authority, said that similar restrictions have been adopted in the past and that a legal workaround could be found, Channel 12 said.

A government official who attended Sunday’s discussion told the media outlet that “it was a strange debate, of which nobody understood the bottom line.” Security officials quoted by the channel accused Ben Gvir of stoking tensions in the Arab Israeli street for his own political advantage, in an attempt to replicate the outbursts of inter-religious violence that occurred in May 2021 during Operation Guardian of the Walls.

Later on Sunday, the Prime Minister’s office pushed back at the reports with a vague statement that said the premier had “made a balanced decision that allows freedom of religion with necessary security limits, which have been set by professional officials.”

The ambiguity in the statement prompted some speculation that the move may have been a publicity stunt designed to boost both Netanyahu and Ben Gvir among right-wing voters, and that bans might only be applied on an ad hoc basis to prevent specific people from engaging in religious incitement, rather than to broad segments of the population.

Protesters wave Hamas flags after Friday prayers of the holy month of Ramadan, at the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 22, 2022. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

The Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, is located on the Temple Mount, the holiest place in Judaism as the site of the two biblical Temples. The compound is a major flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly during Ramadan, when tensions often flare and clashes erupt between police and worshipers.

Age-based access restrictions to Al-Aqsa are routinely applied in periods of security tensions to West Bank Palestinians and East Jerusalemites who are not Israeli citizens. In the weeks after October 7, for instance, the police only allowed Muslim residents of the Old City of Jerusalem above the age of 60 to access the compound, according to the Ir Amim watchdog.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara speaks during a conference at the University of Haifa, December 15, 2022. (Shir Torem/ Flash90)

While Sunday’s cabinet reported decision has not been confirmed and details have reportedly not been finalized, a report in the Haaretz newspaper said that the intended limitations on Arab Israelis would permit access to the compound only to men above the age of 60 and women above 50 vetted by the Shin Bet.

Channel 12 cited similar numbers, and said this would considerably curb the number of worshipers allowed onto the compound, increasing the potential for clashes with the police in other parts of the Old City and East Jerusalem, particularly in the flashpoint Damascus Gate plaza.

Police clash with protesters outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem Old City, during the holy month of Ramadan, May 9, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, a security expert and former head of the research division in the IDF Military Intelligence division, said that a blanket ban would not be justified from a security standpoint and could backfire.

“We need to wait for the details of the decision, but if the restrictions are applied arbitrarily, they may cause anger among Arab Israelis,” he told The Times of Israel.

“I expect the criteria will be determined by the police in cooperation with the Shin Bet, and therefore will be reasonable. Curbs must be applied according to professional security considerations,” he said.

“We know that there are extremist elements in Arab Israeli society who have used the Temple Mount in the past as a platform for incitement, for instance the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement,” he said, referencing a radical group of Israeli Muslims that has often engaged in fanning the flames surrounding tensions on the Temple Mount. “Bans have been imposed on some of their members in the past,“ Kuperwasser said.

The left-wing Ir Amim watchdog noted that sweeping limitations on the freedom of worship of Arab Israeli citizens would be unprecedented, and wrote in a statement that “restrictions on the entry of Muslims to the Temple Mount are not made based on security considerations alone, but are also related to the stated ambition of activists in the government — helmed by the national security minister [Ben Gvir] — to fundamentally change the status quo at the holy place.”

Various opposition lawmakers have accused Netanyahu of pandering to Ben Gvir, with MK Ahmad Tibi, chairman of the Hadash-Ta’al party, accusing the premier on Sunday of being “held captive” by the far-right minister. MK Merav Ben-Ari of Yesh Atid said Netanyahu was “controlled by Ben Gvir, in every decision” and allowed him to override the opinion of security professionals.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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