UN envoy cites Israeli account of how Temple Mount clashes began

At UN Security Council, Wennesland lauds Israeli recommitment to status quo but pans potential excessive force; Israeli, Palestinian envoys slam international response to violence

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland briefs, over video conference, the Security Council on the 'Situation in the Middle East,' including the Palestinian question, on January 26, 2021. (Daniela Penkova/UNSCO/File)
UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland briefs, over video conference, the Security Council on the 'Situation in the Middle East,' including the Palestinian question, on January 26, 2021. (Daniela Penkova/UNSCO/File)

The UN’s Middle East envoy on Monday appeared to adopt the Israeli account of how major clashes between Palestinians and police on the Temple Mount were sparked earlier this month.

“On 15 April, during the early morning hours, a large number of Palestinians gathered at the Al Aqsa compound. Some Palestinians threw stones, fireworks and other heavy objects toward Israeli Security Forces, and ISF used stun grenades, sponge-tipped bullets and batons, including against some bystanders,” Tor Wennesland told the UN Security Council, during the forum’s monthly session on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinians have claimed that the police breached the compound unprovoked, and that those inside only began clashing in response to the intrusion.

Palestinian Ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour presented a different narrative, telling the Security Council in his respective address that Israeli police “stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif, shooting at worshipers and desecrating the mosque with military boots and violence.”

Focusing on clashes that took place inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Wennesland said “several dozen Palestinians entered a mosque in the compound, with some continuing to throw stones and fireworks toward ISF. Following a standoff with those inside, Israeli police entered the mosque and arrested those barricaded inside. During the clashes, some damage was caused to the structure of the mosque.”

The UN envoy’s account seemed to acknowledge the reasoning for the police decision to enter the mosque after Palestinians “barricaded” inside and threw stones.

Palestinian protesters hurl stones towards Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 15, 2022. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

However, Wennesland also pointed to the over 160 Palestinians injured during the clashes that ensued, saying that the “conduct of Israeli forces has raised concerns about possible excessive use of force.

“Despite the tensions, overall, hundreds of thousands of Muslims, Jews, and Christians have been able to celebrate the holy days in and around the Old City in relative peace and without further escalation,” he noted.

Wennesland went on to laud recent statements from Israeli officials “reiterating [their] commitment to upholding the status quo and ensuring that only Muslims would be allowed to pray on the Holy Esplanade” — praise not often heard from such a senior member of the international community.

For his part, Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan used the meeting to lambaste the international community for urging “calm from both sides,” during recent unrest in Jerusalem, insisting that Israel should not be placed on the same level as the “bloodthirsty terrorists” clashing with police on the Temple Mount.

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan addresses the Security Council on October 19, 2021. (Courtesy)

“From both sides?! Who are the sides?!” Erdan said during a press conference ahead of the UN Security Council session.

“On the one side, we have the mobs of bloodthirsty terrorists, calling to murder Jews, carrying weapons into their places of worship, throwing firebombs and rocks from mosque windows, and shooting firecrackers from within their holy sites,” he added.

“On the other side, we have a law-abiding democracy, which ensures the freedom of worship for all, is committed to protecting holy sites, and shows respect and restraint before using minimal force only when necessary to protect others.

“And calls are made for calm from both sides? How detached from reality has the international community become?” the envoy lamented. He asserted that Palestinian terror groups have “spun a web of lies” to blame Israel for the recent violence at the Temple Mount.

Mansour claimed that Jews visiting the Temple Mount are seeking to take over the entire site known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif.

Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour address a UN Security Council meeting on the Palestinian and Israeli conflict at UN headquarters, on March 26, 2019. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

“Jewish extremists and settlers are not just visitors, as Israel claims. They are in fact pursuing an agenda when they enter Al-Haram Al-Sharif, they are seeking a takeover,” Mansour said in his remarks

“How do we know it? We just listen to them, they do not hide their intentions, they proclaim them. When Israeli forces allow them to enter the site and provide them with protection and support, they do it knowingly. Pretending not to understand the outrage provoked by such assault on the Haram when each time it triggers the same reaction is outrageous,” he said.

Over 4,600 Jews visited the Temple Mount during the Passover holiday last week — a record number, which was twice as many as there had been in 2019 and seven times as many as there were in 2014. The vast majority of visitors are from the national-religious sector.

Israel says it maintains the status quo, under which Muslims may visit and pray at the site while non-Muslims can only visit. But Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai acknowledged on Saturday that there has been a “deterioration” and that Jews have been allowed to stop and quietly pray while circling the compound. Footage from recent years indicates that it is not a rare occurrence.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid last week denied prayers happen regularly, though he acknowledged some may break the rules from time to time.

Mansour pointed to Israel’s capping of Christian worshipers allowed inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for this past Saturday’s Holy Fire ceremony as a further violation of the status quo at Jerusalem holy sites. Israel limited the number to some 4,000 citing to fears of overcrowding, which caused a deadly crush at Lag B’Omer festivities in Meron last year.

“Clearly, Israeli officials are the only ones to believe such actions are anything but a flagrant violation of the historic status quo,” Mansour said.

“Israel has no rightful claim or sovereignty over any part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, its Old City and its holy sites,” the ambassador said, seemingly dismissing Israeli connections to the site where the ancient Temples once stood.

Like Erdan, Mansour also tore into the international community for its response to the recent violence. But while the Israeli envoy accused countries of whitewashing alleged Palestinian crimes, the Palestinian envoy lambasted members for not backing up their rhetoric with action against Israel.

“The fact is that there is no international law-based order if there is no will to enforce the law on the ground,” Mansour lamented.

He asserted that Ramallah supports a two-state solution to end the conflict while Prime Minister Naftali Bennett opposes even holding negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and “says that what Palestinians need are jobs, not human rights.”

IDF vehicles near the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank during a raid on a terrorist’s home on April 9, 2022. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

Wennesland, addressing the recent IDF operations throughout the West Bank aimed at quashing the recent deadly terror wave in Israel, condemned the use of lethal force by soldiers. “I am particularly appalled that children continue to be killed and injured. I urge Israeli authorities to conduct thorough and transparent investigations into all instances of possible excessive use of force.”

At least 17 Palestinians have been gunned down by Israeli troops since the beginning of April. While the IDF says the majority were killed while participating in clashes, a number of the cases were of bystanders apparently caught in the line of fire.

Wennesland also condemned the “unacceptable” vandalism of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus by Palestinians earlier this month as well as the terror attacks that took the lives of 14 people in Israel.

The envoy noted a slowdown in demolition of Palestinian homes by Israel, with only 27 structures being demolished ahead of and during the holy month of Ramadan. “The demolitions were carried out due to the lack of Israeli-issued building permits, which are nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain.”

He called on Israel to cease such demolitions along with settlement building, calling the policies violations of international law.

“The violence and spiraling tensions of the past month have underscored, yet again, that efforts to manage the conflict are not a substitute for real progress towards resolving it,” Wennesland said, reiterating the long-maintained UN position in favor of immediate peace talks aimed at achieving a two-state solution.

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