The intense clashes Friday morning on Jerusalem's Temple Mount were almost inevitable. The rumors on social media – and the media’s noise surrounding it – that Jews were planning to come to the site and offer a Passover sacrifice spread like wildfire.
Over the last few days, Israel has tried to broadcast to Palestinians, Jordanians and even Hamas that they have nothing to worry about. Like every year, Israel said, the handful of Temple Mount instigators will not be able to reach the complex and sacrifice a live goat.
Indeed, Israeli police and the Shin Bet security service rushed to arrest several members of the “Returning to Temple Mount” movement in recent days. Others on the way to the Old City with goats were also arrested Friday.
But the rumors about this apparent threat to Al-Aqsa already gained steam among many young Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel. There were also those who took it upon themselves to stoke the fears of the Palestinians.
On Thursday night, dozens of buses with young Arabs from Israel’s north and triangle region arrived to Jerusalem, apparently under the guidance of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement.
In the face of threats about sacrifice, they initiated the tradition of sleeping at the Temple Mount early, rather than staying there only for the last 10 days of Ramadan.
By the morning prayer there were already thousands at the site, who began to chant and throw stones towards Mughrabi Bridge. For several hours pictures emerged that seemed to be taken during the Hamas-Israel fighting last May – hundreds of young people barricaded themselves inside the mosque, throwing stones at police officers who responded with sponge-tipped bullets, tear gas and clubs.
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The police could have locked the young people in the mosque and left the Temple Mount, but they feared they would break out and throw stones at the Western Wall. Police were also concerned that the concentration of young people in the mosque would severely disrupt the noon prayer of the second Friday of Ramadan.
Last week, more than 50,000 people attended prayer, making the management of riots at a site with 50,000 visitors a particularly complicated task.
As of now, it appears that the police's gamble paid off. After several hours of skirmishes, police forces broke into the mosque and arrested everyone inside. An unprecedented 470 people were detained, led through the Western Wall Plaza and escorted onto buses in the single event.
Ahead of Ramadan, police had established a special team for questioning the detainees, which now appears to be working in full force.
As with every event in recent years when police breached the Al-Aqsa compound, a series of deeply disturbing videos surfaced documenting excessive violence on the part of the police – a woman accidentally struck by a running officer, a photographer beaten for no apparent reason, and elderly people violently pushed back.
Police later withdrew from the mosque to allow hundreds of Palestinians to clean it and prepare for noon prayers, which were attended by thousands of worshipers from the West Bank.
No violent or unusual incidents occurred during the mass prayer – except for calls to support Hamas and one young man who climbed to a roof where a police force was stationed. The fact that there was no escalation is significant and is part of Israel's attempt to signal to Palestinians that it is willing to continue with the usual Ramadan events and allow freedom of worship.
When the sun set on Friday, the time to offer a Passover sacrifice passed, according to Jewish law. This year, no Passover sacrifice was made on the mountain, nor has there been one for 1,952 years. But at least, in the eyes of the Palestinians, that threat has been removed.
Saturday was a quiet day on the Temple Mount and in the Old City. As of press time on Saturday evening, it was still unclear how the night would pass at the Damascus Gate plaza. Tensions at the plaza begin each evening around 9:30 P.M. and continue past midnight.
The Damascus Gate is an excellent barometer for tensions in Jerusalem. If the night passes quietly, as it did in recent nights, it will signify that Friday was an isolated incident, triggered by rumors of a Passover sacrifice, and not an ongoing event that will continue through to the end of Ramadan. In addition, the police's decision to release almost all of the detainees, with less than 30 remaining in custody, also speaks to the notion that, on the part of the defense establishment, this was an isolated event and not the beginning of a wave.
The pressing issue is that images of Israeli police officers on Temple Mount may serve as a trigger for lone wolf attackers. During Friday's noon prayer, a 15-year-old girl left her home in the northern city of Haifa and stabbed a Jewish man, moderately injuring him. Experience shows that she may not be the last.