Israeli authorities were readying for possible violence in Jerusalem and on the Gaza border Friday, amid soaring tensions over a long-sealed portion of the Temple Mount holy site and an increase in cross border fighting with the Palestinian enclave.
Tens of thousands of Muslim worshipers were expected to congregate for weekly prayers on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, with fears that clashes could break out as protesters attempt to re-enter an area near the Gate of Mercy.
The long-standing closure of the area near the Gate of Mercy on the compound, known as al-Aqsa or Haram al-Sharif to Muslims, has ignited tensions between Palestinian worshipers and Israeli police in recent weeks. Worshipers have forced the area open and entered on several occasions.
Authorities are concerned that prayers at the Temple Mount on Friday, the busiest day of the week, could devolve into violent clashes over the dispute.
The Hamas terror group posted a video Thursday calling on Palestinians to gather en masse at the Temple Mount and the surrounding areas in a so-called day of rage against the closure, Channel 12 news reported.
The Waqf religious trust that administers the Temple Mount compound called for protest prayers at the site, but said they were not interested in renewed clashes, Israel’s Channel 13 news reported. East Jerusalem Palestinians have also called for non-violent demonstrations.
Police told the Haaretz daily that they were not beefing up forces in the area beyond normal levels.
Friday is the main day of congregational prayer in the Muslim week and regularly sees thousands of worshipers entering the compound, which is governed by a sensitive status quo.
High-level Israeli and Jordanian officials have been holding talks in the hope of defusing the situation. On Thursday, Israeli officials traveled to Jordan for meetings, and Jordanian officials have also visited Jerusalem according to Israeli reports.
The talks are ongoing and the sides have yet to come to an agreement, according to Haaretz.
Jordan has offered that the site be closed for long-term renovations. While the Israelis agree, they insist it must first be closed without renovations taking place, as a statement of Israeli authority. This disagreement has reportedly stood in the way of a deal.
The area inside the Gate of Mercy was sealed off by Israeli authorities in 2003 because the group managing the place had ties to Hamas, and it has been kept closed to stop illegal construction work there by the Islamic Waqf. The actual Gate of Mercy, which is a fortified gateway in the retaining wall surrounding the Temple Mount, has been bricked up for nearly 500 years.
Israeli officials believe the work carried out by the Waqf, which refused to allow any Israeli observers, led to the destruction of antiquities from periods of Jewish presence in the area.
Last month, the Waqf reopened the site and Palestinian worshipers began to use it as a mosque, despite Israeli attempts to keep the area sealed.
On Tuesday, the Waqf rejected an Israeli court order to close the disputed area, which abuts the gate on the inside of the Temple Mount compound. Sheikh Abdelazeem Salhab, chairman of the Waqf Council, said that the area would “remain open for Muslims to pray,” despite Israel’s ultimatum to close the site by next Monday.
The Waqf has repeatedly challenged the closure, convening and staging prayer-protests in the area, which often erupted into clashes with police.
There were also fears the Gaza border could see renewed violence Friday, after a week which saw a ceasefire disintegrate, with near daily bouts of cross-border fire.
Israeli tanks and aircraft carried out strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza on at least six occasions over the week, according to the military, in response to several instances of balloons carrying explosives being sent over the border, as well as rocket fire and troops being shot at.
One explosive tied to a balloon damaged a home in the Eshkol region.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toured the border area and warned Hamas “that any display of aggression will be met with twice as great a response from the Israeli side.”
The IDF was deploying extra troops along the Gaza border in anticipation of riots Friday, which is the day that typically sees the largest clashes on the fence, Channel 13 news reported.
Throughout the week, Gazans have held nightly demonstrations, led by so-called “confusion units,” in which participants generally set off loud explosives, burn tires and throw rocks at Israeli troops on the other side of the security fence.
The Israeli soldiers typically respond with tear gas and, in some cases, live fire.
Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry said early Thursday that a 15-year-old boy died from wounds sustained during border clashes.
Egyptian mediators were in Gaza this week as Cairo launched a new round of mediation between Israel and Hamas in a bid to secure a lasting ceasefire deal.
According to Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, Egyptian officials have warned Hamas officials that “creating tensions on the border by launching incendiary balloons will bring the IDF to launch a broad military confrontation in the Strip.”
Pan-Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat reported Thursday that Egyptian mediators are working hard to implement some kind of truce before March 30, the one-year anniversary of the border protests, when officials have warned of a major flareup in violence.
Agencies contributed to this report.