Muslims and Jews united in outrage as Israel blocked all access to the Al Aqsa compound — known to Jews as the Temple Mount — amid fears of unrest following the shooting of a prominent right-wing Israeli activist and the police killing of his suspected attacker.
Muslims in Jerusalem’s Old City prayed on the streets after they were prevented from getting near the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque, kneeling on prayer rugs outside convenience stores and near stone archways under a heavy police presence.
Rowaida Mahamezz, a 21-year-old student, said that her family comes to pray every Thursday at Al Aqsa, traveling from Umm al-Fahm near Haifa. They knew that the site was closed, but they came anyway.
“We have the right to pray in Al Aqsa every day,” she said. Instead, they prayed at a spot outside of Lions Gate, one of the main entrances to the Old City.
Rajae Bitar, a 59-year-old administrator at Al Quds Open University who lives in the Old City, says he prays at Al Aqsa daily. But today, he prayed at a spot just before the Via Dolorosa, the path on which Jesus was said to have carried his cross until his death, instead.
There were some minor flare-ups between Palestinians and Israeli police.
But Palestinians said that things could escalate quickly in the Old City if Muslims aren’t allowed into the site for Friday prayers.
“Tomorrow is the big day for prayer day. If they don’t open it there will be many problems,” Bitar said, adding that he was anticipating major clashes. “If someone won’t let you into your house, how will you react?”
It was closed today as a security precaution by Israeli police for the first time in 14 years after Yehuda Glick, a prominent right-wing rabbi who advocates for for increased Jewish access to the site was shot in an apparent assassination attempt. His suspected assailant, Moataz Hejazi was killed by Israeli police in the early morning hours in the Abu Tor neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Jews also tried in vain to gain access the site. According to Yosef Rabin, a longtime activist in the Jewish Temple Mount movement and a friend of Glick, dozens of Jews gathered outside the Mughrabi Gate, which leads to the Temple Mount and demanded to be let in.
Rabin, who lives in Jerusalem, said that he goes to the site multiple times a month, did not show up at the protest because he knew that the site was closed.
“To close it on a day when a Jew has almost been murdered over the issue is just adding insult to injury,” Rabin said.
He said that the police were punishing Jews instead of punishing Palestinians, calling them “the population which the incitement comes from.”
Bitar said that Israeli forces and settlers were to blame, and that recent home demolitions and IDF killings of Palestinians were inciting people to react. “Without justice there will be no peace,” he said.
Stuart Schnee, a public relations specialist in Beit Shemesh, said that he is not a Temple Mount activist, and doesn’t visit the site because he is a follower of rabbis who say that Jews should not go for religious reasons. But after Glick’s shooting he said he sympathized with the cause, even though he did not attend the Thursday protest.
“It sure made me want to go,” he said.
The Al Aqsa compound, or the Temple Mount as its known to Jews, is holy to both faiths. The site is administered by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, a Muslim religious body, but Israel controls access to the site, enforcing a ban on non-Muslim prayer there for security reasons. Israel also at times bars Muslim men under the age of 50 — especially in recent weeks — citing security concerns.
Muslims revere the site as the point from which Muhammad ascended into heaven. Jewish tradition holds the the Temple Mount will be the site of the future Third Temple. Some far-right wing Jews have interpreted that literally, even fundraising for a temple. While most mainstream Jewish rabbis say entrance to the site is religiously forbidden because of its holy status, others, such as Glick, have been pushing for Jewish prayer there. This movement has gained traction in the halls of the Israeli government in part through the activism of Knesset Member Moshe Feiglin, who has called for the expulsion of the Waqf.
As the sun set in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, Mary and Toru, two Japanese tourists who declined to give their last names for privacy reasons, were studying a map as they walked toward the police barricades. They hadn’t heard about the closure of the site, they said. But they had not made plans to see it today anyway.
They said they were afraid of the ramped up police presence.
Reach Naomi Zeveloff at Zeveloff@forward.com or on Twitter @naomizeveloff
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.