Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Thursday that “extremist elements” were attempting to sow unrest in Jerusalem and other areas in efforts to renew violence between Israelis and Palestinians ahead of the Passover holiday, which starts next week.
The prime minister said security forces would increase their readiness to counter these attempts amid a wave of terror attacks that began more than six months ago and has lately been ebbing.
“There are, at present, attempts to rekindle the unrest and the violence, especially over Passover and the Temple Mount, as we previously experienced during the holidays last autumn,” Netanyahu said during a speech in Tel Aviv to the union of local authorities.
“On the eve of the Passover holiday, all kinds of extremist elements are promoting lies about our policies on the Temple Mount with the aim of causing riots and fueling tensions. We are working against these inciters and against these inciting elements, and we will increase our forces in places of friction and also take defensive measures. We are also sending messages to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and the entire Arab world,” he said.
“I invite you too, mayors, Jews and Arabs alike, to work with the residents of your towns and cities to calm tensions. We will not allow a radical minority to change the course of things,” he added.
Netanyahu also reiterated Israel’s commitment to the status quo on the Temple Mount, which today houses Islam’s Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine and is known in Arabic as Haram al-Sharif, or the Holy Sanctuary.
“I tell you with full certainty: There has not been nor will there be any change in our policy toward the status of the Temple Mount-Haram al-Sharif. Do not believe the lies that are promoted, unfortunately, by a number of Knesset members,” Netanyahu said. “We are committed to maintaining peace and security and we will do whatever is necessary to ensure the security of Israeli citizens.”
Muslims regard the Temple Mount as the third-holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. In Judaism, the Temple Mount, the location of both ancient Jewish temples, is so holy that Jews have traditionally refrained from setting foot there due to ritual purity rules. They congregate instead at the adjacent Western Wall, a retaining wall of the ancient temple complex that is now considered the most revered site for Jewish prayer.
Under an agreement between the Israeli government and Islamic authorities at the site reached after Israel’s conquest of the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War, Jews are allowed to visit but not pray on the mount itself. Jewish visitors suspected of violating the Temple Mount prayer ban are routinely arrested by Israeli police.
During Passover, and other High Holy Days, some religiously observant Jews seek to visit the compound.
Clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli security forces erupted at the compound in September 2015 amid fears among Muslims that Israel was planning to change rules governing the site. Israel has repeatedly denied any such plans.
Netanyahu’s comments came a day after President Reuven Rivlin called a meeting with the leaders of Israel’s faith communities to work toward reducing tensions surrounding the Temple Mount, and to promote a message of tolerance ahead of Passover, Orthodox Easter and other holidays.
The meeting Wednesday came hours after Palestinian leaders warned that Jews visiting the Temple Mount compound during the upcoming Passover festival would inflame tensions. In an incident last week first reported on Wednesday, a Jewish couple was secretly married while on a visit to the Temple Mount, leading several Israeli politicians to warn that the move threatened to ignite new violence around the holy site.
On Wednesday, Adnan Gaith, the head of Fatah’s armed Tanzim wing in Jerusalem, told Israel Radio that any calls by Jewish religious and political leaders to visit the flashpoint compound “will not bring about peace or quiet.”
Jerusalem Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, the Muslim cleric in charge of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, also warned against increased Jewish “provocations” at the compound during the Jewish festival.
Both Gheit and Hussein, who did not appear to be referring to the Temple Mount wedding, accused Netanyahu of exacerbating tensions there.