Israel Arrests Temple Mount Officials After Assault on Archaeologists

Waqf officials say Israeli archaeologists tried to remove stones from the complex, violating status quo.

A man walks next to the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City during Friday prayers, January 13, 2017.
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

Israeli Police arrested four workers of the Waqf, the Islamic trust responsible for managing Muslim sites in Jerusalem's Old City, on suspicion that they were involved in an attack Monday on Antiquities Authority staff on Temple Mount.

Waqf officials allege that the incident happened after Israeli archaeologists tried to remove stones from the Temple Mount complex, which the Palestinians say violates the status quo. Six other Waqf employees were arrested earlier on Monday, four of whom remain in custody.

An Antiquities Authority official told Haaretz on Tuesday that the archaeologists were touring Temple Mount to examine areas under threat of collapse. The official said the incident began after one of the archaeologists picked up a stone that had fallen in order to examine it. He added that there was no intent to remove anything from the complex.

The police say they were forced to intervene during the incident and escort the archaeologists off of the Temple Mount.

A senior Israel official familiar with issues surrounding the holy site said he believed Waqf employees had decided to “heat up” the situation on Temple Mount ahead of the Passover holiday.

Also on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided that if the security situation will allow it, Israel would gradually lift the ban against MKs visiting the Mount, starting immediately after the end of Ramadan in late May. Elected officials have been totally banned from entering the complex for the past 18 months as part of efforts to avoid escalation in the area.

Netanyahu made the decision at the end of a meeting he held on the matter ahead of Passover and Ramadan. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Shin Bet security service chief Nadav Argaman, the acting head of the National Security Council, Jacob Nagel, and Jerusalem Police District commander Yoram Halevi all attended.

If the Shin Bet and the police give a positive assessment after the holidays, said the prime minister, then lawmakers and ministers would be able to visit the site for a trial period, subject to police limitations.