Temple Mt. reopens to thousands of Muslims, hundreds of Jews; 8 Muslims arrested

Officers accuse suspects of trying to prevent Jews’ entry; no major incidents after police braced for clashes following months of virus closure and in wake of Palestinian’s killing

Muslim worshipers pray at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City on May 31, 2020, after the site had been closed for over two months because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)
Muslim worshipers pray at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City on May 31, 2020, after the site had been closed for over two months because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

The Temple Mount holy site in Jerusalem opened Sunday to the Muslim public and to Jews for the first time in over two months, with only minor incidents reported amid mounting tensions a day after an unarmed East Jerusalem man with autism was shot dead by officers. The shooting is being investigated; police said the officers mistakenly believed the man was armed.

Police said eight Muslims were arrested for “chanting nationalistic slogans” and attempting to disrupt the entry of Jews into the flashpoint compound, which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, was the site of two ancient Jewish temples, and is holy to both religions.

Along with thousands of Muslims, hundreds of Jews also arrived during the four morning hours in which non-Muslims are allowed into the site. Religious Jews are only allowed in under heavy police protection and supervision, with many strict restrictions, and are taken through a short, predetermined route.

Among them were longtime Temple Mount activist and former MK Yehudah Glick, former minister Uri Ariel and former MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli. Despite a ban on Jewish prayer at the site, some were filmed praying.

The Temple Mount compound had been closed since late March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The holy site opened in the predawn hours of Sunday morning under limitations.

Activists for Jewish prayer rights at the Temple Mount have long urged the government to reopen the site, arguing it was unfair that Islamic Waqf officials and other Muslim officials were allowed to enter the site during the closure, but no Jews.

Police had been bracing for potential clashes and unrest, and policemen outnumbered the Muslim and Jewish visitors at the site after the morning prayer hours.

All visitors are required to wear face masks, and their temperatures were being measured at some of the compound’s gates.

Muslim prayers at the compound are now only allowed in outdoor areas in marked sections, each holding up to 50 people, not inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock.

Singing “God is greatest, we will protect Al-Aqsa with our soul and blood,” a group of Muslims was welcomed in the predawn hours by the mosque’s director, Omar al-Kiswani, who thanked them for their patience.

The opening of the compound, which has been the scene of many clashes and violent outbursts during times of tension, came at a particularly fraught moment, with the killing of 32-year-old Iyad Halak by Border Police on Saturday morning sparking outrage among Palestinians.

Halak was shot dead in Jerusalem’s Old City, with police saying he had appeared to be holding a gun. Halak was unarmed and had apparently not understood officers’ orders to halt as he passed near the Lion’s Gate. He reportedly fled on foot and hid in a garbage room.

The policemen gave conflicting accounts of the events, with a commander telling investigators he had urged his subordinate to cease fire, an order that was not followed, he said, according to reports in Hebrew-language media. The officer denied the commander’s account.

The two were questioned under caution on Saturday. The officer was placed under house arrest and his commander was released from custody under restrictive conditions.

Halak had been on his way to a special needs educational institute in the Old City where he studied. His father, Kheiri Hayak, told the Kan public broadcaster he believed his son was holding his cellphone when he was first spotted by the police.

“We tell him every morning to keep his phone in his hand so we can be in contact with him and make sure he has safely arrived at the educational institution,” Kheiri said.

Iyad Halak (Courtesy)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party denounced the shooting as a “war crime.” It said it holds Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fully responsible for the “execution of a young disabled man.”

Activists protested over the killing in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv Saturday night. In Jerusalem some 300 rallied in the city center, calling out against Israel’s military rule of the West Bank and police violence. Several dozen people demonstrated outside a police station in Jaffa, calling for “justice for Iyad.”

Amir Ohana, the new public security minister, who oversees police, expressed sorrow over Halak’s death and vowed to investigate. But he also said it was early to “pass sentence” on the police officers involved, noting that they “are required to make fateful decisions in seconds in an area that has been inundated with terror attacks, and in which there is a constant danger to their lives.”

Calling the death a “rare incident,” the police said the case was immediately referred for an internal affairs investigation, rebuffing scathing criticism of police by politicians and other public figures.

“It is appropriate to wait for the results of the investigation before reaching any definitive conclusions, and to avoid the ugly slander… of those who, on a daily basis, protect the security of Israeli citizens,” the statement read.

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