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Record 4,600 Jews said to visit Mount over Passover

Arab FMs: End Jewish prayer on Temple Mount; Lapid: Israel committed to status quo

Foreign minister meets Biden officials Yael Lempert and Hady Amr in Israel on their regional de-escalation tour, says Israel ‘dealing with extremist Islamist terror’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (second from L) meets with a US delegation that includes Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (4th from right), Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert (third from right) and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affais Hady Amr in Tel Aviv, on April 21, 2022. (David Azoulay/US Embassy in Israel)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (second from L) meets with a US delegation that includes Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (4th from right), Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert (third from right) and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affais Hady Amr in Tel Aviv, on April 21, 2022. (David Azoulay/US Embassy in Israel)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told a delegation of visiting US officials that Israel is committed to maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount, as the Biden administration continued its regional tour aimed at lowering tensions in Jerusalem.

“Israel is preserving and will continue to preserve the status quo on the Temple Mount, and we have no intention of changing it whatsoever,” Lapid said according to a readout from his office, which referenced the policy that allows Muslims to visit and pray at what they refer to as the Haram al-Sharif, whereas Jews can visit but are barred from praying.

During a Wednesday briefing with Israeli journalists, Lapid brushed off the  widely reported reality of recent months and years in which Jews have been allowed to quietly pray as they’re ushered through the compound by police and employees of the Jordanian Waqf. The foreign minister insisted the official policy barring Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount remains and that it is backed by the security establishment.

But Israel’s Arab neighbors are not convinced. After a regional meeting Thursday in Jordan on the Jerusalem tensions, Amman’s foreign minister told reporters that his counterparts were demanding an end to Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount. “Our demands are clear that Al-Aqsa and Haram al Sharif in all its area is a sole place of worship for Muslims,” Ayman Safadi said.

For his part, Lapid told the visiting US delegation on Thursday that “the only people who have disturbed them were extremists and Hamas supporters who took control of the mosque, desecrated it, disrupted prayer, launched fireworks, and threw Molotov cocktails and rocks.”

“We are acting only in order to prevent violence and to enable prayer to continue as normal.”

Jerusalem has sought to stress its commitment to the status quo in recent weeks as Palestinians and their supporters in the Arab world accuse Israel of violating it and of seeking to “divide” the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

“The State of Israel is dealing with extremist Islamist terror whose entire goal is to sow violence, fear, and chaos. We call on all leaders in the region to act and speak responsibly in order to calm the situation,” Lapid said, emphasizing the feeling in Jerusalem that countries such as Jordan have been elevating fake reports regarding Israeli conduct on the Temple Mount.

Palestinians seen on the holy month of Ramadan at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, on April 17, 2022. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

The US delegation included Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr.

Israel was the second stop on Lempert and Amr’s regional tour aimed at de-escalating the situation surrounding Jerusalem. They later traveled to Ramallah for meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other officials followed by a trip to Egypt. The US delegation was in Jordan on Wednesday and met with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi.

The US said the meeting dealt with “the need for all parties to call and work for calm, especially in Jerusalem, and our mutual commitment to a two-state solution.”

But it was unclear whether Washington’s efforts to convince parties to tone down their rhetoric were bearing fruit, as Jordan on Thursday hosted an emergency meeting of a regional ministerial committee, which Amman used to lambast Israel for its “illegal policies and measures” in Jerusalem, according to a readout from the Royal Court.

The committee condemned actions taken by Israel on the Temple Mount, calling them provocative, and said Israel must ensure that only Muslims worship at the site.

“The committee warned that these attacks and violations represent a blatant provocation to the feelings of Muslims,” according to Jordan’s Petra news agency, adding that it “threatens to ignite a cycle of violence.”

Addressing the ministers, Jordan’s King Abdullah stressed the importance of observing the status quo at Jerusalem holy sites. Participants expressed their support for Jordan’s custodial role in charge of administering those sites — a position Jordan has sought to leverage in recent weeks.

Israeli police officers during clashes outside the Al Aqsa Mosque, in Jerusalem’s Old City, on April 17, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Joining the meeting were representatives from Tunisia, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority and the United Arab Emirates.

Israel Police have entered the compound several times over the past week in order to quash Palestinian riots. The most intensive violence took place last Friday, after police said Palestinians hurled stones they had stockpiled inside Al-Aqsa Mosque toward the Western Wall, below. Police entered in force and clashed with dozens of Palestinians shortly after dawn prayers. Over 150 Palestinians were wounded and some 400 were arrested in the rioting that ensued. Clashes have continued on a near-daily basis since.

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

The week of Passover brought a record number of over 4,600 Jewish visitors to the contested mount, the holiest place in Judaism as the site of the biblical temples, and site of the third holiest shrine in Islam. Israel extended sovereignty to the Temple Mount and East Jerusalem after capturing the area from its Jordanian occupiers in the 1967 war. The Palestinians seek the area as the capital of an independent state.

Ahead of the Jewish visitors’ arrival on Thursday morning, Israeli police said dozens of masked Palestinian protesters holed up in the Al-Aqsa Mosque sealed the doors and began throwing rocks and firecrackers. Police said they attempted to disperse the Palestinians using “riot dispersal means,” without elaborating, and that forces did not enter the mosque itself.

A Palestinian official from the Waqf, which administers the site, said large numbers of police used stun grenades at the site. He said police also fired stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets against Palestinians who had sealed themselves inside the mosque. The Palestinian Red Crescent said 20 people were injured, one critically.

Thursday was the last day Jewish visitors were allowed on the Temple Mount until the end of Ramadan on May 2. The holy month coincides with the Passover holiday for the first time in roughly a decade — a confluence identified by the Biden administration months in advance as a possible recipe for renewed tensions in Jerusalem. The policy of barring Jewish visitors on the last 10 days of Ramadan has been standard for years as the end of the holy month brings an uptick of Muslim worshipers to the site.

Palestinians and police clash at the Al-Aqsa Mosque as Jewish visitors tour the Temple Mount, on April 21, 2022. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Nonetheless, Jerusalem is likely to remain on edge into the weekend as Israel plans to significantly limit the number of Christian worshipers who will be able to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the Holy Fire ceremony on Saturday due to safety fears, following last year’s deadly crush that killed 45 ultra-Orthodox pilgrims celebrating the Lag B’Omer holiday in Meron last year.

The Holy Fire ceremony usually brings 10,000 pilgrims into the church, and police sought to limit the number to 1,000, leading Christian leaders to petition the High Court of Justice against the move. Ultimately, the judges ordered police to allow 4,000 people inside while granting access to the general area to all worshipers, in line with traffic regulations. The Palestinian Authority warned Thursday that Israeli restrictions risked further escalation.

Lapid also updated the US officials on the steps Israel has taken to allow Muslim freedom of worship on the Al-Aqsa compound, noting that hundreds of thousands of them have visited during the first two weeks of Ramadan.

Lapid stressed that Israel would not accept rocket fire from Gaza and would do what was necessary to defend its citizens.

A missile from Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system lights the sky over the Gaza Strip, on April 21, 2022. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Gaza terror groups have twice fired rockets at southern Israeli towns this week, ending what had been a nearly-four month period of calm.

Separately on Thursday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz held a meeting with mayors of towns near the Gaza border, assuring them that IDF “forces and preparedness in the area has expanded and that the policy of a harsh response to all terror activities will continue,” according to his office.

Gantz told the mayors that “Israel is prepared to take any action necessary to maintain the security of its citizens.”

AP contributed to this report.

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