Tens of thousands of people thronged to the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City under heavy police guard for a twice-annual mass blessing ceremony Monday morning.
Police said tens of thousands of people packed the Western Wall plaza, as security forces were bolstered amid sky-high tensions over a fresh outbreak of violence connected to increased Jewish visits to the nearby Temple Mount holy site for the Passover holiday.
The blessing ceremony, which sees male descendants of the Kohanim priestly caste gather to bestow benediction, involves the raising of hands in a form similar to the “Vulcan salute” which Leonard Nimoy borrowed from Judaism for his “Star Trek” role as Mr. Spock. Those conducting the blessing also cover their heads with prayer shawls.
The blessing is performed daily by devout Jews at synagogues throughout the country, and mass ceremonies are held at the Western Wall on the holidays of Passover and Sukkot.
Last year, 50,000 Jews gathered at the Western Wall for the priestly blessing.
The Western Wall is the closest spot to the Temple Mount where Jews can pray. Though allowed to visit the Mount, where Jews believe the two ancient Jewish temples stood, Jews are not allowed to pray and increased Jewish visits often spark tensions.
Police said two Jewish visitors were ejected from the site Monday morning. On Sunday, 13 Jewish visitors were removed from the esplanade, known as the Haram al-Sharif to Muslims.
Amid concerns of a terror attack on the worshipers, and fearing general unrest, police have bolstered security in Jerusalem for the ongoing festival of Passover this week.
During Passover, one of three Jewish pilgrimage holidays, tens of thousands of Jews flock to the Old City, including many who visit the Temple Mount.
Israel fears these visits could trigger renewed Palestinian unrest, which has appeared to subside in recent weeks after six months of intense street violence.
In total, 3,500 officers will be patrolling the capital throughout the week, police said, after tensions surged last week following a bus bombing — the first in the capital in over a decade.
In total 1,043 people visited the site Sunday, of whom 168 were Israeli Jews and the rest foreign tourists, police said, not including Muslim worshipers.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last week Israel would deploy reinforcements around the Temple Mount during Passover to prevent “riots.”
“As Passover approaches, all sorts of extremists will spread lies about our policy concerning the Temple Mount,” he said.
Police have said they intend to allow Jewish visits to the site to continue as normal during the holiday, though they won’t allow disturbances.
“We will not allow disturbances of public order or security, and we will act decisively against anyone who tries to do so,” police spokesperson Luba Samri said in a statement Sunday morning.
On Friday police detained 10 Jewish men suspected of planning to sacrifice goats on the Mount in honor of the Passover holiday.
In ancient times, Jews used to sacrifice a lamb on Passover Eve and eat it as part of the traditional Seder meal. Nearly all Jews forgo this ritual today.
The Temple Mount has been at the center of months-long tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, who fear growing Jewish presence at the site that is also home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Knesset members and ministers have been banned from entering the Temple Mount compound over Passover “for security reasons.”
A US-brokered plan to place cameras on the Temple Mount in a bid to calm tensions appeared to fall apart last week after Jordan, which is custodian of the site, said that Palestinians had protested the placement of recording devices.
Israel has said it still wants the cameras.
AP, AFP contributed to this report.