Israeli police closed the Temple Mount complex to visitors Sunday, after Muslims confronted Jews who tried to visit the site.
The incident took place on Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, the day marking the destruction of the First and Second temples. As thousands of Jews fasted and prayed at the Western Wall, about 200 tried to visit the Temple Mount complex above it.
The mount, holy to both Jews and Muslims, was the location of the ancient Jewish temple. The Dome of the Rock, where the Koran says the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven on a white seed, stands on the site today.
After riots on the Temple Mount in October 1990 resulted in the deaths of 17 Palestinians, police barred Jews from worshipping at the site during Jewish holidays.
Last week, however, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that Jews could tour the site, as long as there was no threat to public safety.
On Sunday morning, police made two attempts to escort Israelis onto the Temple Mount, but they were forced to leave when they encountered dozens of angry Muslims.
“We tried to get in, we were allowed to get in by the police,” said Gadi Servitman, one of the four Israelis who tired to enter the Temple Mount.
“After 1 meter the Muslims came and pushed us back, screaming in Arabic something that means like, `The visit is forbidden,'” he said.
Police officials said that after the first attempt by Israelis to enter the Temple Mount, are mosques began calling on Palestinians to go to the site to prevent Jews from worshipping there. Large numbers of Palestinian youths amasse at some of the other gate entrances to the mount and were prevented from entering by Israeli security forces.
Jerusalem Police Chief Arye Amit closed the Temple Mount to visitors after consulting with Police Commissioner Assaf Hefetz and meeting with members of the Waqf, the Islamic Trust that runs the complex, and Palestinian official Faisal Husseini.
“We received reliable information that hundreds youth were getting ready to `light up’ the eastern part of the city if there were any visit,” Amit said. “That was when I decided to use the authority given to me by the High Court ruling to close the site to visitors.”
Opposition parties condemned the police action. In written statements, they charged the police with backing down and damaging Israel’s sovereignty over the area. They also called for the dismissal of Police Commissioner Hefetz and Jerusalem Police Chief Amit.
Police Minister Moshe Shahal backed Hefetz’s claim that the police had used their best judgment to accomplish their main aim: to prevent Arab and Jewish bloodshed.
Gershon Solomon, who heads the Temple Mount Faithful movement, which seeks to restore the temple, said the day marked “the real battle for the Temple Mount.”
“The decision of the Supreme Court was very clear: Jews, including the Temple Mount Faithful movement, will be today inside the Temple Mount,” said Solomon, adding his regret that “a week” government “decided to close the gates of the Temple Mount before the Jewish nation.”
Ultimately, police allowed the group to walk up the ramp leading to the Mugrabi Gate, above the Western Wall, but not enter the Temple Mount. They stopped about 10 meters short of the gate, where they read from the Book of Lamentations.