Israeli police banned several East Jerusalem Palestinian activists, including a controversial preacher, from the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount compound as the mosque prepares to reopen this Sunday, according to Palestinian media reports.
There was no immediate comment from Israeli police.
The Islamic Waqf, which administers the Al-Aqsa Mosque, closed the mosque and the Dome of the Rock on March 15 in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. One week later, it banned gatherings in the compound as a whole. Employees of the Waqf continued to clean and maintain the holy site throughout the lockdown.
Among those detained was the preacher of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Ekrima Sa’id Sabri. Sabri had previously been issued a four-month ban which expired two weeks ago. He was released on Friday morning, according to Palestinian media reports.
Sabri claimed that while in detention he had been charged with “incitement and participation in protests,” an accusation he denied in an account he gave to the Ma’an news agency. He said he had been given a week-long ban and had been given a summons for questioning on Wednesday as to his activities.
Hamas terror group chief Ismail Haniyeh condemned the reports, calling it “a new assault on our right to worship and our access to the holy site, and part of the plan to rid it of worshipers.”
Sabri was removed from his post as Grand Mufti in 2006 by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after a controversial career, including support for suicide bombers and Holocaust denial. He defended violence against Jews in the Al-Aqsa site itself as “legitimate self-defense,” in an interview with The Times of Israel in 2015.
Following Sabri’s detainment, some Palestinian social media accounts circulated claims on Twitter that the mosque was reopening based solely upon “the conditions of the occupation.” However, Omar al-Kiswani, director of Al-Aqsa, denied this, emphasizing that most of the restrictions had been instated for public health concerns.
“These requirements are universal, they are not the occupation’s. They preserve our people’s health and preserve our mosque,” al-Kiswani told Palestine TV in an interview.
On Sunday, the Al-Aqsa Mosque will allow worshipers to enter for the first time since the lockdown began. The closure has resulted in several clashes between Israeli security forces and demonstrators demanding to worship at the site in defiance of public health guidelines. Prayer will be held in the courtyard of the Al-Aqsa Mosque; citing public health concerns, the Waqf announced that worshipers will not be permitted to enter the mosque itself.
The Temple Mount is the holiest place in Jerusalem as the site of the Biblical temples and Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest shrine in Islam. Israel allowed the Waqf to continue to administer the site after capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 war. Jews are allowed to visit but not to pray there.
Israel last Wednesday reopened houses of worship, which were major vectors of coronavirus infection, but prayer services still face some restrictions.