Israeli officials braced for potential violence on Wednesday as right-wing Israelis planned a march in Jerusalem against police orders, thousands were set to pray at the Western Wall and Gaza terror groups said they were readying for an escalation.
Jerusalem has been a tinderbox in recent weeks as Palestinians scrapped with police on the flashpoint Temple Mount, the Ramadan and Passover holidays drew thousands to holy sites, Israeli security forces cracked down on terror in the West Bank, and Gaza terror groups stoked the flames.
On Tuesday, police rejected a plan by right-wing activists to stage a march in the Old City, but were reportedly continuing negotiations with the organizers late into the night to try to reach a compromise.
Police reportedly vetoed the route the organizers wanted for the march, and asked they hold the march on a different day, but it appeared that the organizers would likely go ahead with an event on Wednesday.
A police statement said the request to hold the march was submitted Monday “with short notice” and that one of the organizers was summoned for a talk with officers. The statement noted organizers announced the march even though it had not been approved.
Police stated their commitment to upholding “freedom of expression and protest by law, while maintaining the wellbeing and security of the march’s participants and the entire public.”
The head of Im Tirtzu, a right-wing group helping organize the march, denounced the police decision.
“All those who wanted to come to the capital [during Passover] suffered a moral blow,” Matan Peleg told Army Radio. “We want to show there’s nothing to fear.”
Palestinians this week attacked buses outside the Old City en route to the Western Wall, smashing windows and wounding passengers, and attacked Jews in prayer shawls on their way to the wall.
Nationalists traditionally hold a “flag march” in parts of the Old City in May for Jerusalem Day, which marks the reunification of the city after Israeli forces captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City and its holy sites, from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. That march passes through the Muslim Quarter on its way to the Western Wall in a route that critics say is an affront to Arab residents.
Also on Wednesday, thousands of Jews are expected to pray at the Western Wall for the semi-annual priestly blessing ceremony.
The event, known in Hebrew as “birkat kohanim,” is held on the intermediate days of the Passover and Sukkot festivals. It often draws tens of thousands of worshipers, but this week’s ceremony was split between two days to prevent overcrowding. A stampede at an overcrowded religious event at Mount Meron in northern Israel killed 45 people last year.
The first prayer session, on Monday, drew a lower-than-usual crowd of a few thousand people and ended peacefully.
Hundreds of police and border police were being deployed around the capital for added security and crowd control on Wednesday. Traffic was expected to be blocked in the Old City and surrounding areas.
The Western Wall is one of the retaining walls of the Old City’s massive Temple Mount complex, the location of the two ancient Jewish temples and the most sacred place for Jews. The Western Wall is revered due to its proximity to the site of the temples, and is the closest spot to the Temple Mount where Jews can pray.
Though they may visit the Mount, Jews are not allowed to pray at the holy site, which is overseen by a Jordanian custodian. Non-Muslims will be barred from the Temple Mount entirely for the end of Ramadan. The Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount is the third-holiest place for Muslims.
The site’s religious significance has made it a frequent flashpoint, including in recent weeks, and the emotional epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Clashes at the Temple Mount can snowball into wider violence; police actions to quell riots there last year were among the triggers of an 11-day war in Gaza last May.
Hamas and other Gaza-based terror groups have repeatedly invoked the Temple Mount as a red line, and last week called for an escalation there.
Hamas issued fresh threats on Tuesday, after a flare-up in the south the night before.
A rocket was fired from Gaza on Monday night and intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system, in the first launch from the strip in four months. Israel hit Hamas targets in Gaza hours later.
None of the Gaza-based terror groups claimed responsibility for the rocket, which was reportedly fired by the Islamic Jihad terror group.
A senior security official told the Kan public broadcaster on Tuesday that Israel was bracing for more rocket fire from Gaza.
Hamas is unable to prevent other terror groups from firing off rockets, and Israel’s air defense is on its highest alert, the official said.
Hamas media in Gaza said the strip’s terror groups have decided to raise their readiness level for the coming days.
“It was emphasized at our meeting that we must continue to be prepared and to raise the national readiness,” a Hamas spokesperson said. “Our finger is on the trigger.”
After the rocket fire, Hamas reached out to Israel through Egyptian mediators in order to stress that it wasn’t interested in further escalation and had not been behind the attack, according to Kan.
The Islamic Jihad terror group this week showed off the “tunnel city” it has constructed under southern Gaza in preparation for the next conflict with Israel.
Ramadan is often a period of tension between Israel and the Palestinians. On Friday, those tensions boiled over after young Palestinians threw rocks and other weapons they had stockpiled inside the mosque and marched in the area, with some people carrying the green banners of the Hamas terror group.
Police came onto the compound to head off rioting, leading to clashes. Some 400 Palestinians were arrested and over 150 were injured. Police said they waited for morning prayers to end before entering the Temple Mount to disperse the rioters, some of whom threw stones at the Western Wall below.
The fighting, and images of police striking civilians with batons, drew international condemnation, including from Israel’s Arab allies.
In addition to the holiday friction, Israeli security forces have been carrying out widespread arrests in the West Bank after a series of terror attacks in Israel killed 14. The arrest raids sometimes spill into violence in West Bank cities, and at least 17 Palestinians have died in the clashes.