Police temporarily banned Jewish visitors from the Temple Mount on Sunday, as religious tensions spiked over the confluence of Jewish and Muslim holy days centered around the flashpoint holy site.
Sunday marks both the start of Eid al-Adha, an Islamic holiday commemorating the end of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the temples that once stood on the esplanade and other disasters in Jewish history.
Following a security assessment, police said non-Muslims would be barred from entering the Temple Mount, where tens of thousands of Muslim worshipers had arrived during the morning.
“In light of the amount of worshipers and the high potential for friction, it was decided not to allow visits to the Temple Mount at this stage,” a police statement said.
Police also said that security forces had beefed up their presence in Jerusalem, deploying hundreds of officers to the area.
However, police later allowed Jewish visitors to enter the Temple Mount following right-wing criticism over the closure and the outbreak of clashes between officers and Muslim worshipers at the compound.
Several dozen entered the site under close police escort and Muslim worshipers began throwing chairs and other objects at the group. The Jewish visitors left the compound shortly thereafter.
Palestine TV, the official Palestinian Authority television channel, reported that the Jewish visitors entered and exited the Temple Mount within a few minutes.
The closure of the holy site to Jewish visitors on Tisha B’Av drew considerable criticism from right-wing politicians and launched a minor exchange of incriminations for who was behind the move.
Right-wing politicians blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the move, with the United Right party condemning it as “disgraceful” and calling on him to reverse the ban.
A political source said the decision was “made based on assessments by the police. At no point did the prime minister give an order to close the entrance.”
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 Eid al-Adha and Tisha B’Av on the Temple Mount, 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.
Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a member of United Right, said that banning Jewish visitors 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,” he said.
Smotrich also called on Netanyahu to immediately order the Temple Mount be opened to Jewish visitors.
A source in the Prime Minister’s Office denied Netanyahu ordered the closure, saying whether 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.
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.
In June, police allowed Jewish visitors onto the site on Jerusalem Day, which fell this year during the final days of Ramadan, sparking clashes between Muslims and police.
On Friday, the Muslim Waqf trust, which oversees the site, urged Muslim worshipers to crowd the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount to keep Jews from visiting, after police said they would consider allowing non-Muslims to visit the holy site.
Last year, a record number of Jews were reported to have visited the Temple Mount for Tisha B’Av, leading to rebukes from the Palestinian Authority and Jordan, which manages the compound through the Waqf.
On Saturday night, small-scale scuffles broke out between police and East Jerusalem Palestinians at the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, as an annual right-wing march around the Old City walls passed.
During the night, thousands of Jewish worshipers visited the Western Wall, the closest spot to the Temple Mount where Jews can pray, to read Lamentations and other traditional Tisha B’av liturgy.
Under an arrangement in place since Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day war, non-Muslims are allowed to visit the Temple Mount but not to pray there. Jews in religious garb are allowed to enter in small groups during limited hours, but are taken through a predetermined route, are closely watched and are prohibited from praying or displaying any religious or national symbols.
In a statement Friday, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammed Hussein, former grand mufti of Jerusalem Ekrima Sabri and senior Waqf official Abdel Azeem Sahlab said all mosques in Jerusalem but al-Aqsa would be closed Sunday so as many worshipers as possible would come to the compound.
They said the move was in response to police announcing they would consider allowing Jews to ascend the holy site.
“The people of Jerusalem and its surroundings will stand together in the face of the ambitions of the settlers,” they said in a statement, referring to visits by non-Muslims.
Bassem Abu Labda, a Waqf official, said in a phone call that Israel would be “wise” to bar Jews from the Temple Mount on Sunday.
Likud Knesset Member Yehudah Glick, another Temple Mount activist, called the Waqf’s move a “cheap provocation.”
AP contributed to this report.