A traditional Passover prayer at the Western Wall drew several thousand Jewish worshipers on Monday, fewer than the large crowds police have anticipated, after violent clashes in Jerusalem's Old City the day before.
Some Jewish visitors also arrived at the Temple Mount compound, which was at the heart of the conflict for the past days. Police forces were bracing for potential violence, but as of late Monday morning, the situation has remained largely clam.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which runs the holy site, said the modest attendance at the traditional priestly blessing, compared to previous years, is partially due to security concerns. On Sunday, Palestinians pelted buses carrying Jewish worshipers into the Old City with stones, wounding five.
The prayer event was also split into two dates – one on Monday and the other on Wednesday – based on policies to prevent overcrowding adopted in the wake of the deadly Meron disaster last year.
Police expect that the clashes in Jerusalem’s Old City will intensify in coming days, and are concerned that the unrest could spread to other cities in Israel – particularly Arab cities and those with mixed Arab and Jewish populations.
Following a series of clashes at the Temple Mount on Friday and Saturday mornings, Palestinian social media posts have spoken about a purported Israeli “attempt to take over the Al-Aqsa Mosque.” Police sources call it a concerted campaign by Hamas members and officials with links to the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust to spread false information.
On Sunday evening, the police were already preparing for protests in Arabeh in the Lower Galilee as well as in Haifa – the first in a city with a mixed Jewish and Arab population. Over the past two days, there were clashes of limited scope in Umm al-Fahm and Nazareth in the north, where dozens of demonstrators threw stones at police, who dispersed the crowds and made about 10 arrests.
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Monday’s priestly blessing is expected to attract large crowds of Jewish worshipers. The police are on heightened alert as a result. The concern is that Palestinians will exploit the event on social media as an excuse to escalate the situation.
At a press briefing Sunday evening, the head of the Jerusalem district of the police, Maj. Gen. Doron Turgeman, said “every member of the public is invited to the Western Wall.” The district chief spoke of extremist “lawbreakers” who are looking to escalate the situation, but said they are a minority.
Turgeman said that police would look into three recent incidents where officers used clubs against people at the Temple Mount. On instructions from Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev, Turgeman directed the police not to use stun grenades on the Temple Mount, except in extreme circumstances and with prior approval. The aim of the police, Turgeman said, was to allow freedom of worship on the mount while maintaining order and security.
With regard to police intelligence preparations, Turgeman said there are general warnings with respect to Jerusalem. “There aren’t concrete warnings, but we have also experienced terrorist attacks in the absence of intelligence” about them, he said.
The police have been somewhat encouraged by the relative calm with regard to lone-wolf attacks in recent days, and that the Gaza Strip has yet to enter the equation. However, a police source described the present situation as “fragile,” adding that the primary concern is that tensions at the Temple Mount will inspire attempted lone-wolf terrorist attacks.
Police sources also pointed to Akrameh Sabri, the former mufti of Jerusalem, as one of the people responsible for spreading social media posts claiming that Israel was planning to “take over the Al-Aqsa Mosque. “[Sabri] is the one who dictates matters,” a senior police official said. “After they weren’t successful in [the] Sheikh Jarrah [neighborhood] or the Damascus Gate, they grabbed onto the story that marginal right-wing organizations are planning to come to the Temple Mount with kid goats [for sacrifice] and then to the pilgrimage of the rabbis for the holiday and they’ve managed to create a narrative around the mosques.”
Another senior security official predicted that the tension could last for at least the next two weeks, until the end of Ramadan.