Arrests and detention of employees of the Islamic trust have sparked mounting tensions on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, which is under its religious control, less than a week before the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av, which marks the destruction of both Jewish temples in antiquity.
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The dispute erupted between the Israel Police and the Palestinian Waqf (the Islamic religious trust that is responsible for the site in the Old City) after the Waqf began to do renovation and repair work on the mount, which is also holy to Muslims.
Just two months ago the Waqf and Italian preservation experts completed a large-scale restoration of the mosaics in the Dome of the Rock, located on the mount. About a week ago, however, Israel Antiquities Authority staff noticed new scaffolding outside the structure. Police summoned to the site detained four Waqf employees on the grounds that the work was unauthorized. The next day five more employees were arrested when they tried to continue the work.
After a discussion between police and the Waqf, and after consultation with the IAA, the Israeli authorities agreed to allow the renovation to continue, although one of the Waqf employees was ordered to stay away from the Temple Mount compound for two weeks.
Also, about a week ago, an underground water pipe burst there. IAA director Yisrael Hasson conveyed a message to the Waqf to the effect that the authority would permit repair of the pipe without seeking the approval of the ministerial committee that's meant to approve such work – on condition that an Israeli archaeologist could oversee the repairs. The Waqf refused, however, and began the repairs without permission. Police stopped the work, arrested one of the employees and detained three others for questioning.
Some 10 days ago Waqf employees attacked several Israeli archaeologists who were touring the Temple Mount, claiming that one of them was collecting olives that had fallen to the ground. Three of the attackers were arrested and are expected to be charged with assault.
“One of the archaeologists in the group started to photograph [the Waqf attackers] and he was immediately set on by a Waqf man who hit him,” said Zachi Dvira, one of the archaeologists who had organized the tour. “As a result, [the archaeologist] said he was going to the nearby gate to call the police. When he started to walk there, four Waqf men jumped on him, threw him to the ground, beat him with their fists and kicked him. He managed to get out of there somehow.”
These events follow a decision two months ago to block the Waqf from renovating a structure it owns on the mount, to turn it into restrooms. The structure was closed down by the police.
A source close to the Waqf said its employees feel Israel is cracking down on everything relating to the Islamic organization's conduct on the Temple Mount. The source added that this get-tough policy could raise tensions there in advance of Sunday's solemn Tisha B’Av fast day.
At the same time, police are remaining strict with Jews who ascend the mount. According to organizations that promote such visits, 10 Jews were arrested or detained last month on the suspicion that they uttered prayers or prostrated themselves while walking about the compound.
Last week, Rina Ariel, the mother of Hallel Ariel, who was murdered in Kiryat Arba, was detained at the entrance to the mount. Only after intervention by the Jerusalem district police chief was she allowed to enter the compound, holding a picture of her daughter.
As every year, it is expected that zealous Temple Mount activists will try to convince as many Jews as possible to visit the site on Tisha B’Av. Last year 300 Jews visited there that day.
Tisha B’Av and the High Holidays are considered times of particularly high tension in the Temple Mount area. During the past two years there were serious violent outbursts that began at the site and spread to the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
Ir Amim, an NGO that advocates for Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem, warned yesterday, “From past experience, local flare-ups end up bringing escalation [of tensions], certainly close to the Jewish holidays, with the approval of the ascent of Jews to the compound. We hope that the senior political echelons will intervene to prevent the escalation before it happens, and not just in response to international demands, as has happened in the past.”