Police on high alert as thousands gather at Western Wall for priestly blessing

Tensions running high in Jerusalem, West Bank, following a series of deadly attacks on troops; massive manhunts ongoing for two shooters still at large

Jews gather at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 12, 2022, for the annual priestly blessing, during the holiday of Sukkot. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
Jews gather at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 12, 2022, for the annual priestly blessing, during the holiday of Sukkot. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Police deployed across Jerusalem’s Old City on Wednesday, with tens of thousands of Jewish worshipers attending the traditional priestly blessing event at the Western Wall, amid heightened tensions in the city and across the West Bank.

Traditionally, Jewish pilgrims make their way twice a year to the Western Wall on the intermediate days of the Passover and Sukkot festivals, with crowds of men and women spilling out from the Wall’s plaza to surrounding areas.

The ceremony has frequently seen clashes between security forces and Palestinians on the Temple Mount compound, which sits above the Western Wall, who have sometimes thrown stones and objects at the Jewish worshipers below.

The ceremony, which sees male descendants of the Kohanim priestly caste gather to bestow a benediction, involves the raising of hands to perform the blessing, with those conducting the blessing wrapped in prayer shawls.

The event appeared to pass peacefully, but hundreds of police and Border Police remained deployed in the Old City to secure access routes to the Wall, as well as protect the many visitors who were expected to the Old City during the day. Old City roads were shut to traffic.

The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism and is revered as the location of both ancient Jewish Temples. The compound, which now houses the Dome of the Rock shrine and the Al Aqsa Mosque, is Islam’s third holiest site and a frequent flashpoint of violence.

Jewish worshipers cover themselves with prayer shawls as they pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City during the priestly blessing at the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, October 12, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

This year’s ceremony comes after two deadly shooting attacks against IDF soldiers in recent days, and during widescale ongoing manhunts in East Jerusalem and the northern West Bank to find the shooters.

An Israeli soldier was killed in a shooting near the settlement of Shavei Shomron in the northern West Bank on Tuesday.

Staff Sgt. Ido Baruch, 21, killed in a shooting attack in the West Bank on October 11, 2022, in an undated photo released by the military. (Israel Defense Forces)

The soldier, Staff Sgt. Ido Baruch, 21, was from the central town of Gedera and of the military’s Givati infantry brigade, part of its reconnaissance unit.

A gunman apparently opened fire from a passing vehicle and fled the scene at a high speed, according to the IDF’s initial probe of the shooting. Security camera footage showed the car fleeing the area, passing by a military vehicle, toward the Palestinian town of Deir Sharaf.

The attack came as settlers held a march near the adjacent Palestinian town of Sebastia over a string of recent shootings in the West Bank. The soldier was part of a unit securing the march.

An armed Palestinian faction calling itself the Lion’s Den claimed responsibility for the shooting in a statement.

The group — based in Nablus’s old city — was established in recent months by members of various terror groups. Some of its members were apparently previously affiliated with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

It has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks in the northern West Bank in recent weeks, including one targeting another demonstration held by settlers near Nablus.

Israeli soldiers are seen in the Deir Sharaf area, near the settlement of Shavei Shomron, west of Nablus in the West Bank, following a shooting attack on October 11, 2022. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz vowed that security forces would capture the Palestinian gunman.

“I would like to send my condolences to the family,” Gantz said on Twitter.
“The chase continues during these hours. We will get our hands on the terrorist and those who aided him.”

Gantz added that the military’s West Bank operations would “continue and intensify in order to provide security to the citizens of Israel.”

Channel 12, citing unnamed military officials, said Israel was contemplating launching a large-scale operation in the northern West Bank in a bid to end the attacks.

Overnight, the IDF said it had arrested 10 suspected terrorists in raids across the West Bank and found several firearms. No casualties were reported among the troops.

The West Bank has seen a surge in violence in recent months, particularly in its north. Palestinian gunmen have targeted military posts, troops operating along the West Bank security barrier, Israeli settlements, and civilians on the roads.

Israeli soldiers are seen at the scene of a shooting near the West Bank settlement of Shavei Shomron, on October 11, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

In a shooting attack near Jerusalem on Saturday, an Israeli soldier, Sgt. Noa Lazar, 18, was killed.

The gunman, thought to have fled into the Shuafat refugee camp, was still on the lam on Wednesday.

Sgt Noa Lazar, 18, who was killed in a shooting attack in East Jerusalem on October 8, 2022. (Israel Defence Forces)

A civilian security guard seriously wounded in the attack remained in a serious and unstable condition, the hospital said in a statement Tuesday morning.

David Morel, 30, an immigrant from Brazil, was in a medically induced coma and remained under intensive care at the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital.

After immigrating from Brazil in 2017, Morel joined the IDF as a lone soldier, before becoming a security guard following his release from the army, according to his family.

Israeli security forces at the scene of a shooting attack at a checkpoint outside the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, October 8, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israeli security forces were still searching for the alleged gunman, Udai Tamimi,  in the Shuafat area.

As a result, police have heavily restricted access to the neighborhood, with videos on social media showing police units entering the house of the suspected attacker, apparently in order to map out the premises.

Israel maintains a policy of demolishing property belonging to attackers as a deterrent against future incidents.

Israel has been carrying out nightly arrest raids across the West Bank since a spate of terror attacks against Israelis in the spring killed 19 people.

In arrest raids across the West Bank early Tuesday, 10 wanted Palestinians were arrested and several firearms were seized, the IDF said.

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