Israeli Jews prepared Tuesday for the Jewish High Holy Day of Yom Kippur amid increased tensions in the West Bank and Jerusalem, following days of Palestinian rioting centered on the Temple Mount and the al-Aqsa Mosque located within.
Police and the military were on high alert ahead of the 25-hour fast, during which most of the country will shut down and roads will empty.
Thousands of policemen will be spread throughout Jerusalem during the holiday to keep the peace.
The Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, another possible flashpoint, will start on Wednesday evening, just as the Jewish fast ends.
Israeli security forces have repeatedly clashed with Muslim protesters in and around the Temple Mount over the past week. The clashes were triggered by a police raid at the mosque in the run-up to the Jewish new year festival of Rosh Hashanah that turned up pipe bombs, stockpiles of rocks and firecrackers as well as a barricade at an entrance to the al-Aqsa mosque.
Fearing “the intentions of Arab youths to cause disorder” on the Temple Mount, police said in a statement Monday evening they would not allow entry to the compound to Muslim men under 40. Female worshipers will be allowed to enter the site without restrictions, as will men over 40.
The Jerusalem Police also saw its ranks boosted ahead of the holiday, “with an emphasis on the alleyways of the Old City and the [approach] routes of worshipers” to the Temple Mount, the police statement said.
On Monday night a Palestinian youth was killed in the West Bank near Hebron, in what officials said was a likely failed attack on Israelis. When IDF troops arrived at a road in the South Hebron Hills to investigate reports that rocks were blocking the motorway, they heard an explosion and found the young man’s body near the blockage.
Officials said they believed the youth had intended to throw a bomb at Israelis — either civilians of the soldiers — but that the device had detonated in his hands, killing him.
Dozens of people have been arrested in Jerusalem over the past week, including some detained in connection with the unrest on the Temple Mount, which saw Israeli police clash with rioters.
On Yom Kippur, tens of thousands of Jews are expected to visit the Western Wall below the Temple Mount, which is known as Haram al-Sharif, or the al-Aqsa compound, by Muslims.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon ordered a full closure on the West Bank and the shutting of all crossings between Israel and Gaza over the Yom Kippur holiday.
The West Bank closure began at noon on Tuesday and was to last until midnight on Wednesday night.
“During the closure, passage will be allowed only in humanitarian, medical or other special circumstances, with the approval of the [IDF’s] Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories,” the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement Monday.
On Monday night, police began to restrict traffic around Jerusalem’s Old City and set up checkpoints leading to its holy sites.
The Temple Mount will be open to visits as usual on Wednesday, but during the four-day Eid holiday only Muslims will be allowed access, police said.
Meanwhile Israel accused Jordan’s King Abdullah of sharing “responsibility” for the continuing clashes on the Temple Mount Monday, a day after Amman’s king said the site was for Muslims only.
“Don’t run away from your responsibility,” an unusually sharp Israeli message to the Jordanian leader read, according to Channel 2 TV.
“The Waqf” [an Islamic trust that oversees the Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount] “broke the status quo by letting rioters armed with stones sleep in the al-Aqsa Mosque,” Israel charged.
The Waqf operates under the auspices of the Jordanian monarchy.
King Abdullah on Sunday told a delegation of visiting Israeli Arab Knesset members that the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City was for “Muslim prayer only.” He reiterated his criticism of Israel’s response to the recent escalation in violence on the Temple Mount.
Last week’s clashes occurred during the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah.
Police said they raided the Temple Mount to stop youths who had barricaded themselves inside the mosque from disrupting visits by Jews and tourists. Clashes broke out during the raids, with protesters throwing fireworks, stones and other objects at police, who fired stun grenades.
Muslims have expressed anger over visits by Jews to the site and fear rules governing the compound will be changed. Under a five-decade-old status quo — established by Israel after it conquered the site in the 1967 Six Day War — Jews are allowed to visit the Temple Mount, but not to pray there.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said repeatedly he is committed to the status quo at the site.
Israel has also deployed two Iron Dome anti-missile batteries around the southern cities of Sderot and Netivot out of concern that a possible escalation of violence in Jerusalem could result in rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.
Three rockets were fired into southern Israel in recent days from the Palestinian enclave controlled by the Islamist Hamas group, without causing any direct casualties.
Tamar Pileggi, AP and AFP contributed to this report.