Israel seeks to curb Muslim prayer at Temple Mount over virus fear; Waqf refuses

Gilad Erdan asks National Security Council chief to limit Friday prayers to only Arab Israelis and East Jerusalemites after 7 infections in West Bank, but Muslim body says no

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan visits the Western Wall and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City on July 31, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan visits the Western Wall and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City on July 31, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan has been seeking to ban Palestinians from the West Bank from attending Friday Muslim prayers at the Temple Mount and limiting them to just Arab Israelis and East Jerusalem residents, over fears of the spread of COVID-19, his office confirmed Thursday.

Erdan’s spokeswoman confirmed Hebrew-language media reports that he had written to the head of the National Security Council asking him to prevent the entry. After it was announced that seven Palestinians have been infected with the virus and after Israel banned gatherings of more than 5,000 people.

The spokeswoman said the reason for the move was a combination between the ban of mass gatherings and the new cases.

The Waqf, a Jordanian-run body that administers the holy site, refused Erdan’s request, public broadcaster Kan reported later Thursday.

Kan quoted a senior Waqf official as saying Israel had no authority to limit the number of worshipers and that such a move could have “dramatic consequences.”

The Waqf published special instructions for those coming to the prayers, including to wash their hands with soap and to only sneeze into a tissue or into the elbow, and to seek immediate medical attention if they feel ill during the service.

The weekly prayers at the holy site draw thousands of Muslim worshipers. Any attempts by Israel to interfere with the prayers at the flashpoint compound, which is under Jordanian custodianship, would likely be met with fierce Palestinian protest.

A report on Channel 12 said entry of thousands of Palestinian workers into Israel would continue normally.

Muslim worshippers perform prayers at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City during the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha, September 12, 2016. (Sliman Khader/Flash90/File)

The Palestinian Authority Health Ministry said earlier Thursday that seven people at a hotel in the Bethlehem area were suspected of having being infected with the coronavirus by tourists who have since flown back to Greece.

An Israeli man who drove the bus the tourists were in was also diagnosed with the virus Thursday, becoming the country’s 16th case.

The tourists were diagnosed with the virus upon their return home.

If the people in the West Bank are confirmed to be carrying the virus, they would be the first cases diagnosed in the Palestinian-administered parts of the West Bank.

The hotel, in the town of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem south of Jerusalem, has been placed on lockdown.

Israel’s Health Ministry said the infected Greek tourists also spent time in Israeli cities. They visited Israel and the West Bank between February 19 and 27 and were diagnosed after their return, the ministry said in a statement.

Bethlehem is the most visited tourist destination in the West Bank and many businesses including restaurants, hotels, souvenir stores and others rely on tourists to stay afloat.

After emerging in China late last year, the virus has now infected upwards of 95,000 people worldwide and killed approximately 3,200, most of them in China and Iran, though cases have been reported in 81 countries and territories.

Tourists and pilgrims visit the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2019. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

It has prompted governments around the globe to take significant measures to prevent its spread.

Israel has applied ever more stringent travel measures that have left thousands of Israelis under orders to go into self-imposed isolation. Entry to the country has been banned for visitors from a list of countries, including several in Europe, though the restrictions have so far not included the US.

On Thursday Foreign Minister Israel Katz told the Kan public broadcaster that the US was not put on the list because cases there are not yet considered to be a wide outbreak. Katz warned, though, that Israel is “on the verge of an outbreak that we can’t control.”

On Wednesday the Health Ministry announced a series of dramatic new measures and restrictions intended to curb the spread of coronavirus in the country, sending arrivals from five Western European nations into immediate quarantine and limiting mass gatherings throughout the country.

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