A day after ministers approved a plan for holding pre-Rosh Hashanna prayers at the Western Wall under COVID restrictions, Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin publically criticized the decision on Tuesday for not also including the Muslim holy site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount.
“I voted in the coronavirus cabinet against restrictions on prayers at the Western Wall, because the decision separated the Western Wall from the Temple Mount,” Elkin said in a statement.
“In previous waves, both places were excluded from regulations and received special treatment. It makes no sense to implement restrictions at the Western Wall and not to address in parallel what is happening on the Temple Mount,” he said.
The traditional selichot prayers, which are said in Jewish communities all over the world, are part of the services leading up to and during the High Holiday period. Usually, tens of thousands attend the Western Wall services.
Under the terms of the plan approved by the coronavirus cabinet Monday night, no more than 8,000 worshipers will be permitted to attend the Western Wall prayers at any one time and they will need to be divided into 18 capsules. Face masks will need to be worn at all times and the rules will be strictly enforced.
The cabinet also approved the deployment of police to help ensure control crowds.
Officials at the Western Wall will also be enforcing the mask mandate and limits, and will be handing out information packages encouraging people to take part from home.
Speaking to Channel 12 news on Tuesday, Elkin said that there was a higher risk of infection during the mass prayer of Muslims on the Temple Mount than during selichot services at the Western Wall.
“From an epidemiological point of view, people gather on the Temple Mount under very crowded conditions,” he said. “It’s even worse that at the Wall because the vaccination rates in the Arab sector are low. It’s a more dangerous event.”
Health Ministry data shows that around one-third of all Arab Israelis eligible for the vaccine remain unvaccinated.
According to the Galilee Society, an Arab Israeli health nonprofit, around 83% of Arab Israelis over the age of 50 have been vaccinated as of early August, compared with 92% in Israel as a whole.
Some 51% of Arab Israelis have been vaccinated in total, compared with 66% of all Israeli citizens, according to the nonprofit, which bases its analysis on publicly available Health Ministry data.
Current Health Ministry guidelines ban open-air gatherings of more than 5,000 people for mass events like concerts, with celebrations capped at 500 people each. Last year, attendance at selichot prayers was also restricted due to the pandemic.