ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Security forces gear up for Ramadan as tensions remain high in Jerusalem, West Bank

Police say more officers to be deployed around Old City for Friday prayers during Muslim holy month, warn of terror groups inciting violence; IDF preemptively arrests instigators

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

File: Border Police officers guard the entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in Jerusalem's Old City on April 19, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Border Police officers guard the entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in Jerusalem's Old City on April 19, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli security forces are once again gearing up for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which coincides with the Jewish holiday of Passover this year, with tension already high across the West Bank and in Jerusalem.

Police anticipate hundreds of thousands of visitors — mainly Palestinians — will come to Jerusalem during Ramadan, a month of fasting, prayer and reflection observed by Muslims worldwide, which is expected to begin Wednesday or Thursday and end April 21.

Ramadan has often been marked by clashes and high tension between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israeli and Palestinian Authority delegations reconvened Sunday for a relatively rare, albeit low-stakes, regional summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where they recommitted to de-escalating tensions ahead of Ramadan.

Top defense officials, meanwhile, have warned the government about an increase in alerts of potential Palestinian terror attacks during the sensitive period.

Some officials have warned that the upcoming Ramadan may be the most difficult to handle in years, as tensions remained high amid a cycle of deadly Israeli raids in the West Bank and deadly Palestinian terror attacks, as well as an uptick in settler violence.

Israeli soldiers are seen at the scene of a shooting attack in the West Bank town of Hawara, March 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

According to the Haaretz daily, during a recent meeting with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, military officials said Israel’s ongoing internal unrest, the declining popularity of the Palestinian Authority, a rise in nationalist Jewish attacks, and the actions of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir are all contributing to a highly volatile state in the West Bank.

A string of Palestinian attacks in Israel and the West Bank in recent months have left 15 people — almost all of them Israelis — dead and several more seriously hurt. Many of the attacks have occurred in the capital and were carried out by Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.

At least 85 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of the year, most of them while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces, though some were uninvolved civilians and others were killed under circumstances that are being investigated.

Some military officials are worried about the high Palestinian death toll, which at this rate is set to surpass last year’s toll of 158, the highest since 2007.

The Israel Defense Forces assesses that the more Palestinians are killed during clashes, the greater the likelihood of others joining the “cycle of violence” and potentially carrying out terror attacks against Israelis.

Masked Palestinian gunmen fire during clashes with Israeli security forces in the West Bank city of Nablus, December 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

The IDF in recent weeks has conducted “preemptive” arrests of dozens of Palestinians identified as instigators of violence, and they are expected to remain held during Ramadan. Other wanted Palestinians who were allegedly planning terror attacks have been killed or arrested during recent raids.

Police warned Sunday of “those who try to take advantage of the holidays to spread incitement on social media, false rumors and disinformation, in particular in relation to the holy places.”

Police said terror groups and other terror elements have in the past used Ramadan to incite and cause rioting in Jerusalem.

Law enforcement officials said police would act “without compromise against rioters and those breaking the law, who harm or attempt to harm those who pray and celebrate, or who use the holidays to harm civilians or security forces.”

Officials at the police’s Jerusalem district held meetings in recent days with various local officials and community leaders to coordinate the holiday activities in the capital. IDF officials have held similar meetings with Palestinian officials in the West Bank in recent weeks.

File: Muslims take part in Eid al-Fitr prayers next to the Dome of the Rock Mosque in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound atop the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, Monday, May 2, 2022. Eid al-Fitr, festival of breaking of the fast, marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Police said that on Fridays during Ramadan, there would be an increased presence of police officers throughout Jerusalem, especially in the Old City and near the Temple Mount, as numerous worshipers are expected to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. A police official told reporters that the Jerusalem district has a shortfall of over 800 police officers to properly ensure security.

For Palestinian Muslims, worship at the Al-Aqsa Mosque — the third-holiest site in Islam — is a central part of the festival. Jews revere the same hilltop as the Temple Mount, the holiest site in their tradition.

The Israeli army has eased some restrictions on movement for West Bank and Gazan Palestinians to allow women, children, and some men to pray at Al-Aqsa without permits.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, left, pray as as Israeli police officers guard the entrance to the Al Aqsa Mosque, in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 19, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police said they are also preparing for Passover and Easter, which will take place during Ramadan this year.

“The purpose of the preparation and police activity in Jerusalem during Ramadan is to enable freedom of worship… while maintaining security, law and public order,” a police statement said.

“Police will act to secure all the worshipers who arrive at the holy places on these days, Muslims, Jews and Christians, with the aim of allowing everyone freedom of worship,” the statement added.

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