Jewish visitors will be barred from the Temple Mount from Wednesday until the end of Ramadan in ten days’ time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced on Tuesday, after a series of security consultations on the issue amid widespread violence linked to tensions at the holy site.
While the decision was in line with longstanding Israeli policy aimed at limiting friction during the holiday period, there had been speculation that the new hardline government would change course, with far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir pushing to allow Jews to continue ascending the Temple Mount through the end of Ramadan, particularly on Wednesday, the last day of Passover.
The statement from Netanyahu’s office on Tuesday said that the decision to shutter the Temple Mount to Jewish visitors was unanimously recommended by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai following a consultation earlier that day.
Noticeably absent from that group was Ben Gvir, who blasted the decision as a “serious mistake that will not bring peace, rather risks escalating the security situation further.”
He claimed that the absence of Jewish visitors on the flashpoint site would mean fewer Israeli police officers stationed there, “which will create fertile ground for massive demonstrations of incitement to murder Jews and even a scenario in which stones will be thrown at Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall.”
“When terrorism strikes us, we must hit back with tremendous force, not surrender,” Ben Gvir said.
Gallant, who Netanyahu said Monday would keep his job after announcing his ouster last month, confirmed that there had been unanimous agreement among security chiefs regarding Tuesday’s decision, in his own office’s statement.
Netanyahu also directed the security agencies to deploy all necessary forces to secure the Western Wall below the Temple Mount for continued Jewish worship, his office said.
Tuesday’s decision was announced hours after Hamas issued a statement calling on Palestinians to flock to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound atop the mount in droves during the final ten days of Ramadan and not to leave the site. They also warned Israel against allowing continued visits of Jews there, as has been the case for most of Ramadan.
The Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary, is the holiest site for Jews and the third-holiest shrine in Islam.
A majority of Orthodox rabbis long barred Jews from visiting the site due to its holy nature as the site of the two Biblical temples, but religious views on the matter have shifted in recent years, which have seen a record number of largely national religious Jewish pilgrims ascend to the site, which is governed by a status quo under which Muslims are allowed to pray while non-Muslims can only visit.
Not all religious figures have shifted their stance on Jewish visits, though, as demonstrated by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yossef’s hailing of Tuesday’s decision. “Beyond the severe religious ban (on Jews going onto the Temple Mount), we have to act to prevent unnecessary agitations and provocations. The Chief Rabbinate has for generations ruled that in accordance with Jewish law, the ascension of Jews to the Temple Mount is completely forbidden,” a statement from his office read.
The uptick in Jewish visitors has intensified long-held claims by Palestinians and Arab countries that Israel is violating the Temple Mount status quo — an accusation Israel vehemently denies. However, along with the rise in Jewish visitors has been a quiet shift in police policy to allow hushed Jewish prayer at the site that has been well documented over the years.
הפלסטינים מדווחים – שוטרים עם אלות מכים מתפללים ללא אבחנה באלות ובנשק, אחרי שנכנסו למסגד. pic.twitter.com/QZooMwaXsk
— Deiaa haj yahia-ضياء حاج يحيى (@DeiaaHaj) April 4, 2023
The issue drew another condemnation on Sunday from Jordan, which said that Israel would be responsible for any escalation that resulted from the decision to allow Jews to ascend to the Temple Mount. While police geared for clashes with Muslim worshippers at Al-Aqsa earlier that day, they decided against raiding the mosque after receiving intelligence that the Palestinians inside were not stockpiling weapons, according to Israeli authorities.
They said this was not the case last week when hundreds of Palestinians barricaded themselves inside with explosive devices, rocks and fireworks in order to target Israeli officers and civilians. Police said they were left with no choice but to enter the mosque overnight Tuesday-Wednesday, which then sparked intense clashes with the Palestinians inside.
Police managed to overpower the rioters but several people inside captured footage of officers brutally beating and apprehending Palestinians, which went viral on social media and sparked massive uproar across the globe. Hamas terrorists also responded by firing several barrages of rockets at Israel from both Lebanon and Gaza, leading to Israeli retaliatory airstrikes.
עימותים בהר הבית: עשרות התבצרו במסגד מעבר לשעות המותרות, נעלו את הדלתות ואספו זיקוקים, מקלות ואבנים. לאחר נסיונות הידברות שלא צלחו, במשטרה החלו לפזר באמצעות רימוני הלם את מפרי הסדר, רבים מהם נפצעו. הכוחות נכנסו למסגד, עשרות פורעים ירו לעברם זיקוקים ויידו אבנים. שוטר אחד נפצע ברגל pic.twitter.com/5YLNUbem0C
— נועה ברנס Noa Baranes (@noabaranes10) April 4, 2023
While he defended the decision to send forces into the mosque last week, Shabtai appeared to acknowledge earlier this week that the officers should not have used such brutal force, while another senior official admitted that the footage caused “terrible damage” to the country.
Roughly 350 Palestinians were arrested in last week’s Al-Aqsa clash, with the vast majority released hours later. However, 17 of them who had illegally entered Israel from the West Bank were charged on Tuesday for their participation in the riot, and 15 more will reportedly be indicted in the coming days.