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Hours after announcing Temple Mount closure, Waqf reported to reverse decision

Islamic authority declares 3-week closure of holy site starting Friday, alongside national lockdown in Israel — but later said to change course over potential Jewish visits

A protective face mask is left on the ground during the Eid al-Adha prayers, next to the Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem's Old City, July 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean, File)
A protective face mask is left on the ground during the Eid al-Adha prayers, next to the Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem's Old City, July 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean, File)

The Islamic religious authority that administers the Temple Mount on Wednesday ordered it closed from Friday following a spike in coronavirus cases, only to seem to reverse course hours later and decide that it will remain open, over an apparent controversy over whether Jewish visits would continue during the lockdown.

With cases of the virus on the rise in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Waqf authority held an emergency meeting with health officials, in which it decided to suspend the entry of worshipers to the compound that houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock “starting from Friday afternoon for a period of three weeks.”

“We hope that citizens will understand this procedure, in order to preserve their health and well-being,” Waqf member Hatem Abdel Qader told AFP early in the afternoon.

The closure was to coincide with a three-week lockdown to be imposed throughout Israel, which controls the entrances of the compound.

Muslims pray at the Temple Moun compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, August 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

But a few hours after the announcement, unnamed Waqf officials told the Palestinian Authority’s WAFA news agency: “After we realized that the occupation authorities intended to open the Mughrabi Gate during the lockdown so that settlers could storm the mosque, we decided to keep the doors of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque open.”

“In the event that the occupation’s police do not abide by this decision [to keep the compound closed], the mosque will remain open to worshipers,” the source said.

There was no official statement from the Waqf.

The Waqf is sponsored by Jordan, which is the custodian of the compound, known by Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, or Holy Sanctuary, and as the Temple Mount by Jews as the site of the Biblical temples. It is the third holiest site in Islam and the holiest in Judaism.

Wednesday’s initial decision was only the second time that the Waqf had decided to close the compound since Israel captured East Jerusalem in the Six Day War of 1967 — with the first time being in March, also in response to the pandemic.

Jews regularly enter the Temple Mount, although they are not allowed to pray in the compound. Palestinian officials often decry these groups as “settler invasions.”

Israel Police could not be immediately reached for comment, but discussions appeared to be ongoing.

Israel has previously blocked access to the flashpoint site, which is a focus of Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

A man walks past the Dome of the Rock, in the Temple Mount compound, in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

The Waqf shut the compound at the onset of the pandemic in March, when sweeping closures upended religious life in a way not seen for centuries.

With coronavirus infection rates rising, Israeli authorities have reported nearly 167,000 coronavirus cases, with 1,147 deaths. Tuesday saw a new record of 5,494 new cases in a single day.

In the West Bank, some 214 people have died from the virus and more than 30,200 cases have been registered by Palestinian authorities.

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