IDF closes off West Bank, Gaza for Passover after skirmishes in Jerusalem

Lockdown — standard for most Jewish holidays — will remain in effect until Sunday, but may be extended; Hamas chief speaks to UN envoy, Egyptians amid fears fighting could spread

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative: Palestinian women cross the Qalandiya checkpoint, outside of the West Bank city of Ramallah, on April 15, 2022. (Flash90)
Illustrative: Palestinian women cross the Qalandiya checkpoint, outside of the West Bank city of Ramallah, on April 15, 2022. (Flash90)

The Israeli military on Friday afternoon closed off border crossings with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, amid widespread fears that the weekend could see yet more violence following bloody skirmishes between police and Palestinian protesters atop Jerusalem’s Temple Mount Friday.

The closure — normally a standard practice during festivals and holidays — comes as increased tensions around the convergence of the Passover, Ramadan and Easter holidays in the coming days have set the region on edge, following weeks that have seen an uptick in West Bank clashes as Israeli forces have attempted to crack down on Palestinian terror following a rash of deadly attacks.

In contrast to the morning’s intense fighting, during which more than 150 Palestinians and three Israeli police officers were wounded, afternoon prayers for the second Friday of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan at the Al-Aqsa Mosque ended relatively calmly.

Following the prayers, thousands of Palestinians gathered in the area, chanting nationalist slogans, footage showed. Some bore the Palestinian flag, while others carried green banners associated with the Hamas terror group.

The West Bank and Gaza closure began at 4 p.m. and was to remain in effect until just after midnight Saturday-Sunday. The army was still allowing Palestinians to return to the West Bank after 4 p.m. Friday, but no one was allowed out.

Exceptions can be made for humanitarian and other outstanding cases, but will require the approval of the Defense Ministry’s liaison to the Palestinians, known as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT).

Passover begins on Friday evening and ends a week later. Security officials will convene Saturday evening to decide whether to extend the closure for the entire Jewish festival.

The military says the closures are a preventative measure against attacks in periods of increased tension. But during the holiday of Purim in March, the military skipped the usual closure for the first time in five years.

Despite the terror crackdown, officials have sought to leave freedom of movement for Palestinians outside the Jenin area relatively unaffected in hopes of keeping tensions from boiling out of control, allowing many to visit family or Jerusalem for Ramadan, which ends in early May.

Palestinian women cross the Qalandiya checkpoint, outside of the West Bank city of Ramallah, on April 15, 2022. (Flash90)

The lockdown went into effect hours after clashes broke out between Palestinians and Israeli police at the Temple Mount early Friday morning, resulting in 158 people wounded, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

A police source quoted by the Kan public broadcaster said 400 Palestinians were detained. Police said three officers were lightly hurt after being pelted with stones, two of whom required medical treatment.

Police said in a statement that at around 4 a.m., dozens of young people began marching in the area. The marchers threw stones and set off fireworks, while stockpiling rocks and other objects to prepare for further clashes, according to police.

Police said they waited for morning prayers to end before entering the Temple Mount to disperse the rioters, and that some of them threw stones at the Western Wall below. Some Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque, from where they hurled stones toward officers.

Police insisted they never entered the mosque itself, but footage showed the building consumed with smoke ostensibly due to use of smoke grenades and tear gas. In other footage from the police raid circulated on social media, officers could be seen hitting some Palestinians with clubs on the compound for no apparent reason. Later on Friday morning, police officers entered the mosque and detained several Palestinians, video footage showed.

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 15, 2022. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The site was reopened to worshipers late Friday morning after “all the violators of public order were dispersed and arrested,” according to police.

The Israel police conduct was widely condemned by various Palestinian factions as well as the governments of Jordan, Egypt and Turkey. The EU and the US Embassy in Jerusalem issued statements calling for calm.

Ramadan is typically a period of high tension, as tens of thousands of worshipers, including many West Bank Palestinians, attend services at Al-Aqsa Mosque, which sits atop the Temple Mount complex. The site is Judaism’s holiest place, and the mosque is Islam’s third-holiest.

The site is the emotional epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and tensions there can easily snowball into wider conflagrations. Hamas and other Gaza-based terror groups have repeatedly invoked the flashpoint holy site as a red line. Police actions to quell riots there last year helped trigger the 11-day war in Gaza in May.

Masked Palestinians take position during clash with Israeli security forces at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Underlining fears that the violence could spread to Gaza, as it did last year, sparking an 11-day war, Egyptian officials and United Nations Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland spoke with Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh Friday following the clashes, according to the terror group.

In Haniyeh’s call with Wennesland, the Hamas leader demanded the Israelis fulfill several conditions: allow worshippers to pray at Al-Aqsa and end police operations there, release those detained after Friday’s clashes and definitively prevent extremist Jews from sacrificing at the hilltop, as a tiny minority had hoped to do.

Haniyeh also demanded that Israel cease “its killing and assassination operations in Jenin and across the West Bank,” according to the Hamas statement. Sixteen Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire — many while engaged in clashes — as the IDF stepped up security activity in the West Bank over the past two weeks.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report

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