Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday evening went on the offensive against right-wing politicians who accused him earlier in the day of denying Jews access to the Temple Mount for the Tisha B’Av fast.
Police temporarily banned Jewish visitors from the flashpoint in Jerusalem early Sunday, as religious tensions spiked over the confluence of Jewish and Muslim holy days, drawing biting criticism of Netanyahu from leaders in the United Right party. As the day drew on, clashes between police and Muslim worshipers broke out at the Temple Mount, then calmed, and at one point police began to allow Jewish visitors entry to the site.
“After consultations with all security bodies, I made a decision,” Netanyahu said in the evening, in response to the criticism. “This year, like all years, Jews will enter the Temple Mount on Tisha B’Av, even when it is a Muslim holiday. The question was never whether they would enter, but how to manage it optimally for the public’s safety, which is exactly what we did.
“I am not impressed by all the recommendations of the Twitter cabinet,” Netanyahu added, alluding to criticism directed against him on social media by United Right politicians. “Leadership is responsibility and determination. That is how we have acted, and that is how we will continue to act.”
In blaming Netanyahu for the temporary closure and calling on him to reverse it, the United Right electoral alliance had said that banning Jews from the site on Tisha B’Av was a “national disgrace.”
Transportation Minister MK Bezalel Smotrich said the temporary ban was “shameful and a disgrace.”
“The decision is a surrender to Arab terrorism and violence at the holiest place in Judaism, and is why there is a loss of deterrence in other areas,” Smotrich tweeted.
United Right leader Ayelet Shaked also condemned the decision, saying that “closing off the Temple Mount to Jews due to concerns of violence will only beget more violence. When you surrender to terrorism, terrorism wins.”
Sunday marked both the start of Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday commemorating the end of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and Tisha B’Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the temples that once stood on the Temple Mount and other disasters in Jewish history.
The period of peak religious tensions over the confluence of the Jewish and Muslim holy days climaxed in clashes between Muslim protesters and Israel Police at the site on Sunday morning. At least 61 Muslim worshipers were injured in the clashes, according to the Red Crescent. At least four officers were also lightly to moderately wounded, police said.
Initially, police announced that non-Muslims would be barred from entering the Temple Mount, where tens of thousands of Muslim worshipers arrived during the morning, and hundreds of Jews who had gathered at the gates were left outside.
But following the furor from right-wing ministers and lawmakers, a first round of Jewish visitors was allowed to enter the site. Several dozen visited under close police escort, but Muslim worshipers began throwing chairs and other objects at the group, and the Jewish visitors left the compound shortly thereafter.
According to police, Muslim worshipers then began rioting and making “nationalistic calls” on the Temple Mount. In response, police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and other less-lethal riot control weapons at the protesters.
Police had deployed additional forces throughout Jerusalem in expectation of violence throughout the day.
A source in the Prime Minister’s Office denied Netanyahu had ordered the closure, saying that the decision to allow entry to the Temple Mount is determined in accordance with police assessments of the situation.
“At no stage did Prime Minister Netanyahu give the instruction to close entry to the Temple Mount,” the source said.
Last week, representatives from the police, Shin Bet security service and Public Security Ministry presented the prime minister with their assessments and recommendations for Sunday’s holy days, indicating that Netanyahu would have been aware of their decision and given tacit approval.
The prime minister also has the power to override the police’s decisions regarding the holy site.
Israeli authorities traditionally close the Temple Mount to non-Muslims during Islamic holidays, to keep religious tensions from boiling over, but exceptions have been made when Jewish holidays coincide.
A record 1,729 Jews entered the compound on Sunday, compared to the 1,440 who did so last year, to mark the Tisha B’Av fast day, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan’s office announced.