With security forces on high alert amid a string of terror attacks, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Saturday took the extraordinary step of ordering the Israel Defense Forces to bolster police forces in the Central District.
The number of troops that will be assisting police in central Israel will be decided by law enforcement and military officials, Gallant’s office said.
Sunday was expected to be particularly sensitive in Jerusalem, where thousands of Jewish worshipers were set to take part in the traditional priestly blessing at the Western Wall as part of the Passover holiday.
Police said Saturday night that they expected unrest on the Temple Mount overnight and on Sunday and were bracing for violence.
Meanwhile, the IDF was also set to boost forces in the West Bank, the Jordan Valley, and the so-called seam zone — an area of land between the West Bank security barrier and Israel — following recent terror attacks.
The moves come after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered an immediate call-up on Friday of Border Police reserves officers. Police said four Border Police reserves units will be mobilized starting on Sunday. They will join six Border Police reserve units already operating in and around Jerusalem, and in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod in central Israel.
Gallant also ordered the IDF on Saturday to extend a closure on West Bank and Gaza Strip crossings for Palestinians amid the heightened state of alert, preventing them from taking part in prayers at the Mount’s Al-Aqsa Mosque in the coming days despite the ongoing holy month of Ramadan.
The Passover closure was initially meant to last from 5 p.m. Wednesday until Saturday evening, with another closure on the last day of Passover beginning on April 11 and lasting until April 12. Following an assessment, Gallant ordered the closure to be extended until April 12. Exceptions will be made for humanitarian and other outstanding cases.
Jerusalem District Police Commander Doron Turgeman said the Hamas terror group was “threatening the priestly blessing with the claim that Jews are going ‘to assail the Western Wall’ while claiming Al-Aqsa is in danger.”
Turgeman said police would act to “allow freedom of worship and enable Muslims to pray [at Al-Aqsa]… the ones harming worship are Hamas and other inciting elements.”
Closures are standard practice during festivals and holidays. The military says they are a preventative measure against attacks in periods of increased tension.
In a statement Saturday evening, President Isaac Herzog said that “a cloud of terrorism is casting a shadow on our festive days.”
“Our enemies are acting in various ways to harm us during this period, which should be a time of holiday and vacations,” he said, adding that Israel’s adversaries were misunderstanding Israeli democracy, “which can come to severe and bitter disagreements… but will unite in the face of any enemy.”
The Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which this year once again coincides with the Jewish festival of Passover, is known to be a period of high tensions between Israeli forces and Palestinians. Tens of thousands of worshipers visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque — Islam’s third holiest site, located in the compound that is the most sacred to Jews — throughout the month, regularly leading to a spike in tensions and violence with Israel.
Israel allows Jews to visit the Temple Mount under heavy guard, and such visits spike during religious holidays. Channel 12 news reported Saturday that police were discussing whether to prevent Jewish visits to the Mount from Wednesday through the last 10 days of Ramadan, as has been standard practice in past years to prevent friction with Muslim worshipers.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right advocate of Jewish rights on the Mount, said Saturday he opposed the move, asserting that it “will be a surrender to terrorism.”
Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians have been high for the past year, with the IDF conducting near-nightly raids in the West Bank amid a series of deadly Palestinian terror attacks.
Palestinian terror attacks in Israel and the West Bank in recent months have left 18 people dead and several more seriously hurt.
The past week has seen several attacks in the West Bank, with three soldiers hurt in a car-ramming attack last Saturday, and two more soldiers hurt in separate shooting attacks on Wednesday and Thursday.
Al-Aqsa has been at the center of rising unrest in recent days following Israeli police incursions into the mosque compound to quell rioting; on Thursday, Hamas terrorists fired volleys of rockets at Israel from Gaza and Lebanon, leading to Israel airstrikes.
On Friday afternoon, two sisters were murdered and their mother was critically injured in a West Bank shooting. In the evening an Italian tourist was killed and several others were hurt in a car-ramming at Tel Aviv’s promenade.