Israeli police were gearing up for another possible day of mass Palestinian protests Friday, with officials saying that the points of friction may move from the Gaza border to the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
May 18 marks the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims, when increased religious observance and the closure of many businesses during daylight hours sometimes leads to heightened tensions and clashes with troops.
However, despite the heightened readiness, with some 1,500 police officers deployed to the capital, the army and police said there were no specific security warnings of any kind, and officials had no plans for putting in place heightened security measures, such as limits to the number of Muslim worshipers allowed at Jerusalem’s holy sites over the course of the day, according to reports in Hebrew-language media. IDF forces around Jerusalem have been equipped with riot dispersal means.
Several roads near the Old City were ordered closed to traffic on Fridays for the duration of the month of Ramadan to allow for easier access to the Temple Mount for Muslim worshipers.
Security officials said the Gaza border, the scene of seven straight weeks of violent protests, was expected to be relatively calm after bloody clashes earlier this week led to the deaths of 62 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. Friday is seen as a key test of whether the current round of unrest will continue.
Israel has blamed the Hamas terror group that rules the Strip for the violence in Gaza, saying it co-opted the protests and has used them as cover to attempt border infiltrations and attacks on Israelis. On Wednesday, a Hamas official said 50 of the 62 killed on Monday and Tuesday were members of the group and the Islamic Jihad terror group claimed another three as its members.
Hamas on Thursday signaled it could resort to armed attacks against Israelis in response to this week’s violence, but many analysts see that as unlikely after Egypt intervened and convinced Hamas’s leaders to tone down the protests, leading to only small skirmishes over the last few days.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi announced that the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza will remain open for the entire month of Ramadan, marking a rare concession for the beleaguered Strip.
However, Israeli officials are concerned that large protests could break out in the West Bank and East Jerusalem at the instigation of Palestinian factions, amid widespread anger over the Gaza deaths, and amid continuing protests against the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem last Monday.
Tens of thousands of Muslim worshipers are expected to pray Friday on the Temple Mount, also known as the al-Aqsa compound, one of Islam’s holiest sites. The Mount is the holiest place in Judaism, as the site of the biblical temples.
In the West Bank, Palestinians have called for mass marches toward Israeli checkpoints following Friday prayers, though it was unclear whether crowds would show. On Tuesday, fears of large protests in the territory failed to materialize, with only a few hundred demonstrating at several flashpoints.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Israel’s liaison agency with the Palestinians, decided to ease movement restrictions set during the heightened tensions of recent days, allowing easier passage into Israel of West Bank Palestinians with permits.
WATCH: Head of COGAT, Major General Kamil Abu Rokon wishes Muslims in Judea, Samaria, Gaza and around the world a Ramadan Kareem!
Posted by COGAT – Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories on Wednesday, 16 May 2018