Sixteen right-wing activists of a controversial anti-assimilation group were detained in Jerusalem Thursday after holding a march attempting to reach the Temple Mount.
Marking Israel’s Independence Day, dozens of activists marched from the capital’s central Zion Square toward the Temple Mount, a flashpoint site revered as the holiest place in Judaism but sacred to Muslims as well.
Protesters waved signs demanding Jewish sovereignty over the site, which is administrated by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf endowment, and where Jewish prayer is prohibited.
Police officials informed the protesters that the procession was unauthorized, and demanded their immediate dispersal.
After ignoring the police instructions, 16 of them — including minors — were detained for questioning.
Among those held was Bentzi Gopshtain, leader of the nationalist, anti-assimilation organization Lehava.
The group is known for holding rallies against Jews mingling with Arabs, and two activists tied to the group were recently indicted in the arson of a bilingual Jerusalem school.
Tensions over the Temple Mount simmered last year after reports of Jewish attempts to change the status quo at the site led to widespread unrest in Arab parts of the capital and a string of terror attacks against Jewish Israelis.
The tumult later subsided amid a heavy police crackdown, and after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed several times that Israel did not intend to change the status quo at the holy site.
Jews believe the site once held the two Temples. However, the site is today home to a Muslim shrine and mosque and is considered the third-holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina.
Police restrict Jewish prayer on the site — as well as access at times — in an attempt to keep a shaky peace there, but right-wing groups, many of whom wish to see a third Jewish temple built there, have chafed against the restrictions and agitated for a change in policy.
“We will not be discouraged and will continue to act on behalf of the Temple Mount, which was abandoned by the government,” a representative of the Jewish march, called “Return to the Mount,” told Haaretz after the arrests.
Right-wing activist and lawyer Itamar Ben Gvir, who is representing a number of the detained, claimed the arrests were illegal.
Gopshtain was arrested in November along with nine other members of the organization for his group’s links to the torching of an Arab-Israeli school in the capital.
According to reports in January, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was weighing whether to designate Lehava as a terror organization and ban it.
In December, Gopshtain said that his organization does not act illegally and accused the Shin Bet security service of trying to frame Lehava to thwart its “holy work of saving the daughters of Israel.”