Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing allies accused him of being responsible for the decision to temporary close the Temple Mount to Jewish visitors on Sunday during a tense overlap of Jewish and Muslim holidays.
The Jerusalem police chief, however, said it was he who ordered the closure.
The United Right electoral alliance said banning Jews from the flashpoint holy site on Tisha B’Av was a “national disgrace” and called on Netanyahu to reverse the decision.
Transportation Minister and United Right MK Bezalel Smotrich similarly said the temporary ban was “shameful and a disgrace.”
“The decision is a surrender to Arab terrorism and violence at the holiest place in Judaism, and is why there is a loss of deterrence in other areas,” Smotrich tweeted.
United Right leader Ayelet Shaked also condemned the decision, saying that “closing off the Temple Mount to Jews due to concerns of violence will only bring more violence. When you surrender to terrorism, terrorism wins.”
Sunday marks both the start of Eid al-Adha, an Islamic holiday commemorating the end of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the temples that once stood on the Temple Mount and other disasters in Jewish history.
Israeli authorities traditionally close the Temple Mount to non-Muslims during Islamic holidays, to keep religious tensions from boiling over, but exceptions have been made when Jewish holidays coincide.
On Sunday morning, police announced that Jewish visitors would not be allowed to visit the holy site, citing the “high potential” for violent clashes between security forces and Muslim worshipers. Within hours, scuffles broke out at the compound.
Doron Yadid, the Jerusalem police commander, told reporters he was responsible for the temporary closure and received backing from political leaders. He said further Jews were likely to be allowed to visit the site at 1:30 p.m.
He also pushed back when asked whether the decision to allow non-Muslims onto the Temple Mount during an Islamic holiday was a violation of the status-quo at the holy site.
“As long as I’ve known this place — and I’ve known it for many years — the morning prayers for the holiday begin at 6:30 in the morning. Miraculously, they changed [the time of] the prayers to 7:30. Is this not a change of the status quo,” he said.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who oversees the police, pushed back against the criticism, telling Kan public radio “no politician will preach to this government about sovereignty and endangering lives.”
He also gave his backing to police, praising them on Twitter for their “professional and determined work in the sensitive and necessary balance on the Temple Mount.”
Former Jerusalem mayor and Likud MK Nir Barkat also condemned Sunday’s temporary ban, but said police were responsible.
“From my experience as mayor, while the consideration for Muslim worshipers is justified, it cannot come at the expense of violating the accepted status quo that has governed for decades,” Barkat tweeted.
“Jewish visitors must be allowed to continue to visit the Temple Mount,” he said, calling on the Jerusalem police chief to “exercise your power and don’t surrender to violence.”
Last week, representatives from the police, Shin Bet security service and Public Security Ministry presented the prime minister with their assessments and recommendations for Sunday’s Eid al-Adha and Tisha B’Av on the Temple Mount, indicating that Netanyahu would have been aware of their decision and given tacit approval.
The prime minister has the power to override the police’s decisions regarding the holy site, but Netanyahu’s office on Sunday also sought to distance itself from the police ban.
A source from the Prime Minister’s Office told media outlets the decision was made in accordance with police assessments of the situation, and “at no stage did Netanyahu give the order to close the Temple Mount.”
While the temporary ban was denounced by Netanyahu’s national-religious allies, his ultra-Orthodox partners welcomed the decision.
Chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party Aryeh Deri said banning Jewish visitors was in line with the teachings of the party’s late spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
“We remain faithful to the teachings of [Rabbi Yosef], who said that whoever ascends the Temple Mount is as sinful as eating food on Yom Kippur,” he tweeted. “On this difficult day, we must try not to overload our security forces.”
MK Ahmad Tibi, a member of the Joint (Arab) List who visited the Temple Mount on Sunday, called the decision to allow Jewish visitors into the compound a “provocation.”
“We stood at the front line of the [Al-Aqsa] mosque with the worshipers who came and someone found a way to shoot tear and stun grenades into the crowd,” he told the Walla news site.
חבר הכנסת אחמד טיבי הגיע להר הבית pic.twitter.com/SV6cmFfpXe
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) August 11, 2019
Echoing Tibi, fellow Joint List MK Aida Touman-Sliman said the “far-right activists” were seeking to stir up “prevarication” at the holy site.
“They are backed by Smotrich, their representative in the government, who is trying to fan the flames,” she wrote on Twitter.
“The responsibility for the provocation is on [Public Security Minister Gilad] Erdan and Netanyahu,” she added.
By mid-morning Sunday, Muslim worshipers at the Temple Mount were clashing with Israeli security forces. Police said the Palestinians began rioting, throwing rocks and and making “nationalistic calls” at the holy site.
In response, police said officers fired tear gas, rubber bullets and other less-lethal riot control weapons at the protesters.
At least 37 Palestinian worshipers were injured in the skirmishes with security forces, 14 of whom were hospitalized, according to the Red Cross. Witnesses said at least two people were arrested.
Police said at least four officers were lightly-to-moderately wounded in the clashes. Security forces deployed additional forces throughout Jerusalem in expectation of violence throughout the day.
Later Sunday morning, police briefly reversed the ban on Jewish visitors, and escorted a small group of Jewish worshipers through the compound.
Under an arrangement in place since Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day war, non-Muslims are allowed to visit the Temple Mount but not to pray there. Jews in religious garb are allowed to enter in small groups during limited hours, but are taken through a predetermined route, are closely watched and are prohibited from praying or displaying any religious or national symbols.