Fearing riots, police to beef up presence on Temple Mount during Friday prayers

Move comes amid tensions following Trump peace plan, and after officers arrest two armed men on suspicion they were planning a stabbing attack at the holy site

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Israeli security forces walk past the Dome of the Rock shrine, as they arrive at the Temple Mount compound in the Old City of Jerusalem on August 11, 2019, after clashes broke out during the overlapping Jewish and Muslim holidays of Eid al-Adha and Tisha B'Av. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Israeli security forces walk past the Dome of the Rock shrine, as they arrive at the Temple Mount compound in the Old City of Jerusalem on August 11, 2019, after clashes broke out during the overlapping Jewish and Muslim holidays of Eid al-Adha and Tisha B'Av. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The Israel Police on Thursday announced it would be stationing additional troops on the Temple Mount for Friday prayers, out of concern that rioting may break out at the Jerusalem holy site, following the release of US President Donald Trump’s contentious peace plan.

“The Israel Police will respond forcefully to any effort to disturb public order and harm the peaceful holding of Friday prayers,” police said in a statement.

The police did not specify how many additional officers would be deployed to the holy site, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif.

Friday prayers on the Temple Mount often see large numbers of Muslim worshipers. During past periods of heightened tensions, Fridays there have seen severe clashes between police and Palestinians.

In July 2017, three Arab Israeli men opened fire at a group of police officers, killing two and sparking weeks of heightened tensions, as Israel demanded increased security measures on the holy site, a move that was staunchly rejected by Muslim worshipers.

A Palestinian rioter hurls a rock during clashes with Israeli security forces following a protest in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on January 29, 2020. (Musa AL SHAER / AFP)

Thursday’s police announcement came amid a generally heightened deployment of security forces in the West Bank and along the Gaza border out of concerns of increased violence in response to the American plan, which Palestinian leaders have roundly rejected.

On Wednesday, officers arrested on the Temple Mount two East Jerusalem teenagers who were armed with a knife, with which, according to police, they planned to carry out a stabbing attack against one of the officers stationed at the site.

“The suspects were residents of Jerusalem between the ages of 17 and 18 who were brought in for interrogation on suspicion of attempted premeditated murder, hate crimes and possession of a knife. Today they will be brought before the Jerusalem District Court in order to keep them in custody,” police said.

On Wednesday evening, the Israel Defense Forces announced it was deploying additional infantry troops to the West Bank and Gaza border in light of “constant situational assessments.”

US President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu take part in an announcement of Trump’s Middle East peace plan in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on January 28, 2020. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

Palestinians held protests throughout the West Bank on Wednesday and Thursday, though turnout was relatively limited and the demonstrations were easily contained by the IDF and Border Police.

Small demonstrations with dozens to hundreds of participants were held in and around the Jordan Valley, Bethlehem, Hebron, Qalqiliya, Tulkarem, Abu Dis, al-Bireh and Ramallah, according to the Palestinian Authority’s Wafa news site.

At least two Palestinians were reportedly injured by live fire during the riots, with several others wounded by rubber bullets and tear gas, according to Wafa.

The military would not give the exact number of reinforcements being sent. The additional troops being sent to the West Bank would come from the elite Maglan and Egoz commando units, while the Gaza Division would be reinforced with troops from the Golani Brigade’s 51st Battalion, it said.

The decision came after the military sent an additional infantry battalion to the Jordan Valley on Tuesday, ahead of the release of the Trump plan.

“In accordance with the constant situational assessments being conducted by the IDF, it was decided to reinforce the number of combat troops in the Judea and Samaria Division and Gaza Division,” the military said, using the biblical name for the West Bank.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, left, meets with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, second from left, Judea and Samaria Division commander Brig. Gen. Yaniv Alaluf, center, and other senior IDF officers in the West Bank on January 28, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

On Tuesday, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett instructed the IDF to remain on high alert ahead of the plan’s release and prepare for the possibility of violence, amid threats by the PA to not restrain or disperse rioters in the West Bank.

“The minister instructed the troops to be prepared for the scenario of an immediate escalation [of violence] in light of the presentation of the plan and the agitation of the street, without the cooperation of the Palestinian Authority,” his office said.

According to unconfirmed reports in Hebrew media, PA President Mahmoud Abbas instructed Palestinian security not to stop protesters from confronting Israeli forces in the West Bank as the US releases the plan.

According to the Ynet news site, Abbas said: “We need to enlist all the young people. Stay out on the streets. We’re going to be on emergency footing in the coming days… Ahead of us are difficult days and we will need to bear the consequences of refusing the agreement.”

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