In a last minute turnaround, Jerusalem Police chief Ilan Franco decided Tuesday morning to close the Temple Mount off to non-Muslim visitors as the nation marks Tisha Be’av and the destruction of the ancient Jewish temples at the site.
The decision to close the holy site, which was taken in the wake of “concern for public safety”, came just one day after the police said the site would remain open to Jewish visitors on Tuesday.
More than 50,000 Jewish and Christian visitors have peacefully toured the ancient compound, which is Judaism’s holiest site, since it was reopened to non-Muslim visitors nearly a year ago. The site had been closed off to non-Muslims almost four years ago due to concern over renewed Palestinian violence at the site.
In years past when the mount was closed to visitors, the commemoration of Tisha Be’Av has served as a rallying cry for those seeking to reopen the site to Jews.
While the Temple Mount was declared off-limits to Jews and Christians on Tuesday by police, a group of Arab Knesset members and members from Israel’s Islamic Movement were freely touring the compound.
Jerusalem Police spokesman Shmuel Bin-Ruby said that the Mount would be reopened to non-Muslim visitors on Wednesday.
Head of the ultra-nationalist Temple Mount Faithful group, Gershon Solomon, said Tuesday that the police’s decision to keep Jews off the Temple Mount on Tisha Be’av was disgraceful.
“This is a total retreat from our sovereignty over the Temple Mount and another dishonor to the Jewish Nation by a weak leadership that does not understand the significance of the hour,” he said.
The issue of Jewish visits to the Temple Mount was recently back in the spot-light after Internal Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi warned this weekend that Jewish extremists could carry out an attack against Arabs at the site in order to torpedo Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s planned unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
In light of the warnings, security officials are considering banning certain extremist Jews from entering the Temple Mount, something that they have done periodically in the past, or placing certain individuals under ‘administrative detention,’ a draconian move usually reserved for suspected Palestinian terrorists.
On Thursday, a special meeting is expected to take place at the Justice Ministry with the participation of Shin Bet officials, police, and the Attorney-General to consider barring a group of five to 10 known Jewish extremists from entering the Jewish holy site due to concern that their visit could spur violence.
In a separate development, the Jerusalem Magistrates’ Court on Monday convicted two far-right activists, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Yehuda Etzion, for disturbing the peace by reading the Book of Lamentations next to a security checkpoint at the entrance to Temple Mount on Tisha Be’av seven years ago.
Ben-Gvir vowed to appeal the ruling.