Tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims made their way to the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on Thursday for a twice-annual mass blessing ceremony, held under a heavy police guard.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which oversees the holy site, estimated that 80,000 people attended the priestly blessing, held twice on Thursday morning, with crowds of men and women spilling out from the wall’s plaza to surrounding areas.
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.
Police said that a large number of officers were deployed around the city on Thursday, in particular at “flashpoints,” in order to “keep order” and ensure “the safety and wellbeing of the public” as well the ability of “various groups to exercise their right to freedom of religion and worship.”
Earlier this month, police commander Doron Turgeman, who heads the Jerusalem sub-district in which the Old City is located, said that security would be bolstered in the city during Passover as a precaution against possible terror attacks.
“Holidays and festivals over the years have caused higher tensions and sensitivity and are a preferred period for attacks,” Turgeman told Army Radio. “Ahead of the festival there will be wider deployment based on assessments of the situation. We are here in order to enable the holiday to go ahead as usual.”
Turgeman’s comments came a day after a terrorist stabbed three people in the Old City, prompting concerns of the potential for heightened tensions in Jerusalem leading up to the Passover holiday.
Last month, the head of the Shin Bet security agency Nadav Argaman warned that terror groups such as Hamas will seek to carry out attacks over the holiday.
“We are just before the Passover holiday, and there is no doubt that terrorist infrastructures, mostly the established one, and specifically Hamas, will try to agitate the area and carry out attacks,” Nadav Argaman told the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
The Western Wall is the closest spot to the Temple Mount where Jews can pray. Though they may visit the Mount, where the two ancient Jewish temples stood, Jews are not allowed to pray at the holy site, which is overseen by a Jordanian custodian.
Ahead of the start of Passover on Monday, police said they detained at least 17 people in Jerusalem over a number of suspected attempts to sacrifice kid goats for the holiday.
On Sunday, police arrested several Jewish activists, including five minors, who they said were suspected of intending to carry out a separate Passover sacrifice on the Temple Mount.
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.
Last week, security forces allowed a rehearsal sheep sacrifice to take place in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Previously, police had prevented such events anywhere in the Old City over fears of a violent backlash.
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.
On Wednesday, police said some 1,800 people visited the Temple Mount, of whom around 1,400 were tourists.
Police said that three Jews were removed from the site for “violating the visiting rules,” all though it was not specified what they did.
The Temple Mount has long been a source of tension between Israel and the Palestinians, who allege Israel is attempting to change the status quo arrangement at the site, also home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Israeli government forcefully denies the accusations.
Agencies contributed to this report.