Israeli officials on Sunday expressed regret about an incident last week in which police entered Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque on the flashpoint Temple Mount and were filmed striking Palestinian rioters, with one official reportedly saying they had caused “terrible damage” to the country.
Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai himself seemed to admit that officers should not have beaten Palestinians during the incident.
But in a rare media interview with the Kan public broadcaster, Shabtai defended the decision by police to enter the mosque overnight Tuesday-Wednesday for what they said was an operation to quell rioting, with Palestinians stockpiling rocks, fireworks and improvised explosives, allegedly for use against Jewish visitors to the site.
The suspected rioters may have also stockpiled pipe bombs to use against security forces, Ynet reported late Sunday, adding that the Shin Bet was investigating the “complicated” intel.
Shabtai said in the interview that additional force was necessary to subdue the roughly 400 rioters who had barricaded themselves inside the mosque with weapons that morning.
Images of police striking Palestinians during the incident sparked widespread outrage in the Arab world, and terror groups used the images to call for attacks against Israel.
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
Meanwhile, a report Sunday said that Israel was likely to maintain its long-held policy of barring Jews from visiting the Temple Mount during the last 10 days of Ramadan, despite the new hardline government, which includes top ministers who have long campaigned on allowing Jewish prayer at the holy site.
There have been questions in recent days whether the policy would change, and far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir issued a statement on Saturday saying he opposes closing the flashpoint site to Jews, as the security establishment recommends.
Ben Gvir called the closure “a surrender to terrorism,” and falsely blamed the policy on the previous government. The Temple Mount has been closed to Jews during Ramadan since long before the Bennett-Lapid coalition, which held power during Passover last year, and was the policy during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous tenure as premier.
Ben Gvir is still pushing to allow Jews onto the site for at least one of the last 10 days of Ramadan. The minister wants to allow the visits on Wednesday, the last day of Passover, a Channel 12 news report said.
Ramadan often sees violence and high tensions, especially when the month-long holiday coincides with the Passover festival. Tens of thousands of worshipers visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque throughout the month, regularly leading to a spike in tensions and violence with Israel.
The Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, is the holiest site for Jews as the site of the ancient Temples and the third-holiest shrine in Islam. Tensions at the Temple Mount have contributed to a spate of violence in the past week that saw three killed in suspected Palestinian terror attacks and volleys of rockets fired at Israel from Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.
In the Kan interview, Shabtai highlighted the fact that the first two weeks of Ramadan had passed by relatively peacefully and blamed extremists for stoking tensions.
“Most of the population here went to pray and have freedom of worship, but unfortunately a handful of young people managed to ignite the area and we responded accordingly,” he said.
The Palestinians inside the mosque had barricaded themselves inside with a stockpile of stones and fireworks, but Shabtai acknowledged that officers had used “a little too much” force.
“Am I happy with the images that came out of there? No. We’re investigating the incident, we’ll learn from it, we’ll understand what happened, but ultimately everyone saw a brief point out of a larger picture in which a large, large number of officers went in and dealt with the incident with respect,” Shabtai said.
An unnamed senior Israeli official made similar comments to Channel 12, telling the network that footage of police striking the Palestinians caused “terrible damage” to Israel.
The official said police had no choice but to enter the mosque, after receiving intelligence that several hundred Palestinians had stockpiled weapons inside to use against Israeli civilians and security forces.
However, the official acknowledged that police went too far in beating the Palestinians to the degree that they did, and said that it legitimized claims that Al-Aqsa is in danger, galvanized Israel’s adversaries and caused significant harm to Israel’s reputation on the global stage.
The senior official told Channel 12 that the conduct of officers needed to be reviewed since they had been told beforehand to act with restraint.
Another security official told the network that the Jordan-backed Islamic Waqf that administers the Temple Mount was not doing enough to clamp down on Palestinian rioters. Israel and the Waqf have sparred in recent days, as the Waqf refused Israel’s calls to take action against potential unrest at the site.
Channel 12 also reported Sunday, citing security sources, that over the past weeks, there have been three times as many indications received about planned terror attacks compared to the same period last year.
On Saturday, a report by the network said Ben Gvir and Shabtai had clashed over the ban on Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount during the final days of Ramadan.
The report said Shabtai supports preventing Jewish visits. Ben Gvir, as national security minister, oversees the police and has repeatedly clashed with Shabtai since taking up the post.
Jewish visitors were allowed to visit the Temple Mount on Sunday morning, hours after a number of Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque overnight, stoking initial fears of clashes.
Police decided not to enter the building in the early hours of Sunday morning, apparently to avoid further scenes of violence and any potential spillover.
According to Channel 12, police recognized that those barricaded inside “had not brought with them the kinds of things” that could have caused a violent incident, and they were “evacuated” in the early morning hours “in relative quiet” as the Jewish visitors to the mount started to arrive.
At the conclusion of dawn prayers, police began to allow Jewish visitors into the sensitive compound, under guard and in groups of around 20.
According to an activist Temple Mount group, there were 842 Jewish visitors on Sunday, and 1,041 in total during the Passover holiday — marking a 43 percent increase in the rate of average Jewish visits.
Some Muslim worshipers at the site shouted at the Jewish visitors, but there were no reports of violence.
Israel has vowed repeatedly to maintain the status quo at the site, whereby Jews are allowed to visit there — under numerous restrictions and only during limited hours — but not pray.
However, some Jews have increasingly been allowed to quietly pray there, while Palestinians have instigated violence at the site and unilaterally designated more parts of the site for prayer.