About 1,000 right-wing Israelis marched through Jerusalem with flags on Wednesday evening, amid heightened tensions surrounding the Old City and the Temple Mount.
The march was organized by right-wing activists in protest of the Israeli government’s response to recent violent events and clashes between security forces and Palestinians. It comes after Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett decided to close the Temple Mount to Jews until after Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.
According to the status quo on the Temple Mount, Jews are allowed to visit the compound but not pray there, despite its historical standing as Judaism’s holiest site.
Traditionally, the government closes the Temple Mount to non-Muslims during Eid al-Fitr, the holiday which marks the end of Ramadan. However, over the last 12 years – including under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – in order to defuse religious tensions and prevent violence, the status quo has been further eroded and Jewish worshippers have been barred from entering the compound for the last several days of Ramadan. Prior to Tuesday’s decision by the current government, the site been never been closed to Jews for a such long period of 16 days.
Many Israelis fear that this step will set a new standard in the status quo.
Among the protesters was Knesset Member Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the right-wing party Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit). Earlier in the day, Bennett ordered police to prevent Ben Gvir – who has been accused of inciting racial tensions between Jews and Arabs – from entering Damascus Gate, which is in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.
“I have no intention to allow petty politics to endanger human lives,” Bennett told Israeli media. “I will not let Ben Gvir’s political provocation risk the lives of IDF soldiers and Israeli policemen and make their already difficult task even harder. Our soldiers and police officers will continue to guard the security of Israeli civilians, in Jerusalem and elsewhere around the country, and they will keep fighting Palestinian terror determinedly.”
Ben Gvir attended the march in defiance of Bennett’s order and said that the country’s security is not on the line, but rather the coalition’s stability. He called Bennett a “dictator who harms the freedom of movement of Israeli lawmakers,” under orders from Islamists who support his ruling coalition.
Since he was barred from the protest, Ben Gvir said he planned to establish a temporary office outside of New Gate. Protestors who reached Damascus Gate clashed with Arabs at the site until police broke up the fight.
The march was relatively peaceful and no protesters were arrested.
Clashes did, however, break out on the Temple Mount on Wednesday morning for the fifth day in a week. Israeli police shared videos of Arabs throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces who were securing the site for Jewish visitors. The closure of the Temple Mount to Jews will go into effect starting Friday.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that Israel ensures and defends "freedom of prayer, the status quo on the Temple Mount and most importantly - the security of all the citizens of the area."
"The terrorists who are throwing rocks and inciting to violence on the Temple Mount are the ones that are harming the majority of the people who wish to celebrate Ramadan in peace," he said. "Despite the tense security situation, we’ve decided against a lockdown during the (holiday) period to allow freedom of religion and family visitations."
"I call on Palestinian leadership and all the region’s leaders to act responsibly to ensure security stability and to expand the civil policy we aim to implement before Eid al-Fitr," he said.
Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.