Israel has halted visits by Jews and tourists to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound after a wave of unrest in the holy city of Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement on Tuesday that visits by non-Muslims to the sacred compound – which is known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), their third-holiest site, and to Jews as the Temple Mount, the holiest place in Judaism – will be stopped until the end of Ramadan, expected around April 20.
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Last week, Israeli police conducted consecutive raids at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. On the first night, at least 12 Palestinians were arrested and more than 400 were arrested.
The raids triggered rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, southern Lebanon and Syria, which drew Israeli air and artillery raids.
The statement from Netanyahu’s office was issued after Israel’s top security officials held talks. It said the ban was unanimously recommended by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, Israeli police Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, Shin Bet head Ronen Bar and police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai.
Gallant confirmed the unanimous agreement among the security chiefs in his own office’s statement.
Israeli media reported that Netanyahu directed security agencies to deploy all necessary forces to secure the Western Wall for continued Jewish worship outside the compound. The wall is a holy site in the Jewish faith and a place for prayer. Muslims call it the Buraq Wall.
There was no immediate comment from Palestinian officials on the ban, which Israel has imposed in previous years.
The increased number of ultranationalist Jews entering the compound and the frequent storming of the site by Israeli security forces, including inside the prayer hall of Al-Aqsa Mosque, has increased Palestinian anger.
Israeli authorities have regularly suspended the entry of Jewish settlers and other non-Muslims to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound during the final 10 days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to try to maintain the status quo and dissipate tensions provoked by the visits.
In previous years, a resumption of the visits after Ramadan has seen Jewish settlers enter the holy site in groups of a few hundred under the protection of Israeli police. These incidents also saw dozens of Palestinians injured and hundreds arrested.
Opposition by far-right Ben Gvir
Netanyahu’s far-right police minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, however, denounced the ban as “a serious mistake that will not bring peace, rather risks escalating the security situation further”.
“When terrorism strikes us, we must strike back with great force, not surrender to its whims,” he said in a statement.
He claimed the ban would also mean fewer Israeli police officers stationed at the site, “which will create fertile ground for massive demonstrations of incitement to murder Jews and even a scenario in which stones will be thrown at Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall”, the Times of Israel reported.
Ben-Gvir has regularly entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in what Palestinians have called “deliberate provocation”.
Violence between Israelis and Palestinians has been escalating over the past year, and nearly 100 Palestinians have been killed since the start of 2023. This has caused tensions to run especially high in the Holy Land as Ramadan and the Jewish Passover have coincided.