Thousands of people on Wednesday attended the week’s second iteration of a traditional prayer ceremony at the Western Wall, with authorities on alert for any potential escalation in an already tense Jerusalem.
Large numbers of police forces, including undercover officers, were deployed to secure the event in Jerusalem’s Old City, which started around 8:30 a.m. Numerous roads in the area were closed to traffic.
The event ended peacefully, without any security incidents.
The semi-annual priestly blessing ceremony, known in Hebrew as “birkat kohanim,” is held on the intermediate days of the Passover and Sukkot festivals. It usually draws tens of thousands of worshippers, with crowds spilling out from the wall’s plaza into the surrounding areas.
This Passover ceremony was split into two days to prevent overcrowding, after 45 people were killed in a crush during a religious event at Mount Meron last year. The first prayer ceremony on Monday drew several thousand people, with turnout appearing quite low compared to previous years, amid heightened tensions in the capital.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the site, put turnout at around 10,000 for Wednesday’s event, with many more worshipers appearing to attend than Monday.
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 Western Wall is one of the retaining walls of the Old City’s massive Temple Mount complex, the location of the two ancient Jewish temples and the most sacred place for Jews. The Western Wall is revered due to its proximity to the site of the temples, and is the closest spot to the Temple Mount where Jews can pray. Though they may visit the Mount, Jews are not allowed to pray at the holy site, which is overseen by a Jordanian custodian.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount is the third-holiest place for Muslims.
The site’s religious significance has made it a frequent flashpoint, including in recent weeks, and the emotional epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The increased tensions in the city come as Ramadan and Passover intersect this year. Sunday was also Easter.
Along with Wednesday’s prayer ceremony, Israeli officials were also bracing for potential violence surrounding a planned right-wing march in Jerusalem against police orders later in the day. On Tuesday, police rejected a plan by right-wing activists to march in the Old City, but continued negotiations with organizers to try to reach a compromise.
In a statement Wednesday morning, police said they’d agreed to an alternative route proposed by organizers, but the latter then rescinded the proposal for unspecified reasons.
“We again clarify that at this stage police have not approved the protest march in the requested format,” the statement said.
The march was called after Palestinians this week attacked buses outside the Old City en route to the Western Wall, smashing windows and wounding passengers, and attacked Jews in prayer shawls on their way to the wall.
Nationalists traditionally hold a “flag march” in parts of the Old City in May for Jerusalem Day, which marks the reunification of the city after Israeli forces captured East Jerusalem from Jordan, including the Old City and its holy sites, in the 1967 Six Day War. That march passes through the Muslim Quarter on its way to the Western Wall in a route that critics say is an affront to Arab residents.
Wednesday’s march was apparently intended to be similar in character to the “flag march.”
Ahead of the planned parade, the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group warned “our finger is on the trigger.” Its threat came a day after a rocket was fired toward Israel from the Strip for the first time in months. Israel hit Hamas targets in Gaza hours later.
No terror groups in the Gaza Strip claimed responsibility for the rocket, but the Kan public broadcaster reported that Hamas later reached out to Israel through Egyptian mediators in order to stress that it wasn’t interested in further escalation and was not behind the attack.
In addition to the holiday friction, Israeli security forces have been carrying out widespread arrests in the West Bank after a series of terror attacks in Israel killed 14. The arrest raids sometimes spill into violence in West Bank cities, and at least 17 Palestinians have died in the clashes.
Similar unrest surrounding Ramadan last May led Hamas to fire rockets toward Jerusalem, setting of 11 days of combat between Israel and the terror group that also sparked widespread Jewish-Arab violence in mixed cities.