In an unprecedented move, the IDF announced on Tuesday that it would facilitate the use of shuttle buses from West Bank cities to the Temple Mount on Friday mornings, so Palestinian worshipers could attend Friday prayers at the al-Aksa mosque during the month of Ramadan.
The decision was part of a series of sweeping gestures meant to help ease life for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza during Ramadan.
It includes the easing of travel restrictions that were imposed in response to the second intifada.
In an embargoed statement, issued one day before the holiday commences and after weeks of security preparations by the IDF, Jerusalem Police and COGAT, Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai announced the historic steps to ease restrictive traveling policies during the holiday.
“For the first time, the arrival of worshipers will be allowed via bus directly from the city centers to the Temple Mount,” said Mordechai.
Unprecedented: Gov’t to allow Muslims from West Bank, Gaza to observe Ramadan on Temple Mount
“The IDF will allow the entry of all Palestinians – men and women without a special permit – with the exception of men under 40.”
“The departure of 500 residents from Judea and Samaria abroad, via Ben-Gurion Airport, has been confirmed, and 500 families from the Gaza Strip have been approved to visit residents of Judea and Samaria,” he added.
Moreover, Mordechai announced extended hours of operation for border crossings.
“For the first time, 200 families from Gaza have been approved to visit residents in the West Bank during Ramadan and the Id al-Fitr holiday,” the statement continued, noting that 800 Palestinians from Gaza have also been approved to attend Friday prayers on the Temple Mount.
“In addition, the entry of 300 Palestinians living abroad to visit relatives living in the Gaza Strip has been approved,” the statement said.
COGAT, which is responsible for implementing the government’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is working directly with the Defense Ministry on planning and coordination, Mordechai added.
According to COGAT’s website, the unit’s mission is to “promote and implement the policy of the Israeli government in civilian matters and facilitate humanitarian issues and economic and infrastructure projects in Judea and Samaria and in the Gaza Strip.”
Additionally, the unit “leads the coordination and liaison with the Palestinian Authority and with the Palestinian population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”
Despite the government’s overture of good will for the holiday, Meretz councilman Dr.
Meir Margalit, who holds the east Jerusalem portfolio in the municipality, dismissed the move as a cynically devised publicity stunt.
“Let’s talk after Ramadan to see if it is even true,” he said by phone on Tuesday evening. “I think it’s something being said to improve the Israeli image in America and Europe after the bad impression the elections produced. This is just marketing.”
“But even if this happens,” Margalit continued, “how come basic rights that should be natural in a democratic country become something exceptional that the government does? It should not be unusual for Palestinians to visit al-Aksa Mosque or their families in the West Bank or Gaza.
“It is not a privilege – it should be something normal. So this shows how abnormal a country we’ve become,” he concluded.
Meanwhile, Temple Mount activist Yehudah Glick – who was shot four times last year for his activism on behalf of Jewish prayer rights there – said his response would likely be perceived as counterintuitive.
“I may surprise you,” he said.
“I really hope and wish that the Muslim population will celebrate Ramadan as civilized people, and do what is expected from their religion: to pray and repent.”
Still, Glick expressed pronounced concern based on previous acts of violence carried out on the Temple Mount during Ramadan, particularly after Friday prayers.
“At the same time, I strongly hope that we don’t see pictures – as we saw last year during the period of Ramadan – of the police station on the Temple Mount burning down as part of marking the holiday,” he said.
“I hope and pray that the Israeli police and other security authorities act with zero tolerance for any kind of violence or terrorism by those who would take advantage of Israel’s gesture of good will to the Muslim population.”
Noting the Defense Ministry’s historic announcement – coupled by the expectation of tens of thousands of Muslim worshipers during Friday prayers on the Temple Mount – police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said multiple police units will be working closely with the IDF.
“The Israel Police have completed security assessments for the forthcoming Ramadan holiday in Jerusalem,” he said.
“Extra security measures have been implemented, but at the same time we are working with the IDF to accommodate the hundreds expected to come from Palestinian areas for Friday prayers on the Temple Mount.”
Rosenfeld emphasized that there will be a wide range of police units – including Border Police, Special Patrol, and undercover units – among the thousands of officers stationed in and around the Old City during the holiday, with an emphasis on the Temple Mount during Friday prayers.
In the meantime, he said, police are leaving nothing to chance.
“Throughout Ramadan, security assessments will be made on a daily basis, including after Friday prayers, and police units will be mobilized accordingly,” he said.
A State Department official said: “The continued commitment by Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to preserve the historic status quo at that holy site is critical; any decisions or actions to change it would be both provocative and dangerous.”
The Temple Mount “should remain open to Muslim worshipers and we support the long-standing practices regarding non-Muslim visitors to the site, consistent with respect for the status quo arrangements governing religious observance there,” the official said.
Michael Wilner contributed to this report.