Amid heightened tensions between Palestinians and Israelis as peace talks falter, a brief maelstrom of violence erupted Wednesday morning as soon as police opened the gate to the Temple Mount to visitors gathered from around the globe.
Upon unlocking the Mugrabi Gate at approximately 7:30 a.m., police were pelted with rocks and firecrackers hurled by dozens of Palestinian youths. one officer was lightly wounded. Armed with nonlethal stun grenades and tear gas, police units entered the compound surrounding al-Aksa Mosque, where some of the rioters barricaded themselves inside, police said.
According to police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, riot-control units used the nonlethal weapons to disperse the crowd in less than 30 minutes. He added that despite Palestinian claims that 25 of the rioters were wounded – 15 of them moderately and one seriously – no serious injuries were reported.
“The reports of multiple injuries are a gross exaggeration,” he said shortly after the melee. “Police used maximum restraint throughout the riot to disperse the crowd.”
Rosenfeld added that although a number of suspects fled inside al-Aksa, officers did not enter the holy site to prevent a further escalation.
“Order was restored within 30 minutes and two Palestinians were arrested,” he said.
The Mugrabi Gate was temporarily closed after the incident.
Following Wednesday’s riot – the third of its kind in less than two weeks – thousands of Jews from across the country and from abroad congregated at the nearby Western Wall to observe Passover.
Despite the earlier violence only meters away, the scene was so calm that many visitors expressed incredulity that there had been a riot.
“You must be kidding,” said one middle- aged Argentinean woman who had traveled with several of her children from South America to make the Passover pilgrimage to the Wall. “There was a riot? I’m glad we missed it.”
As her sons sat in a circle penning notes to place in the Wall, one joked about the chaos.
“I guess I will add another prayer to my list,” he said with a smile.
Meanwhile, an Israeli from Hebron said he had heard about the incident on the radio while on his way with his wife and two children, but added that nothing was going to stop him from his annual pilgrimage.
“Listen, I have lived in this country my entire life and these things frequently happen during the holidays, but look around you,” he said. “Do you really think some stones and firecrackers are going to stop us from praying today?” Asked if Palestinian violence and antipathy would intimidate him, an octogenarian named Aaron who had traveled to Jerusalem from New York City sighed.
“We are here in peace to observe a holy time,” he said. “I am confident they would prefer that we leave with our tails between our legs as soon as they start throwing rocks, but that would only give them what they want. I’m here as a proud Jew on a sacred occasion. Their intolerance and hate will not change that. The sooner they understand this, the sooner we will have peace.”
Noting the tens of thousands of Jewish visitors expected at the Western Wall and in the Old City for Thursday morning’s traditional mass Priestly Blessing, Rosenfeld said police were leaving nothing to chance.
“Special patrol, undercover and border police units have carried out extra security measures throughout the Western Wall and Old City for the important and significant prayers scheduled for Thursday morning,” he said.
Some 70,000 Israelis and Diaspora Jews are expected to gather at the Western Wall to observe the annual mass blessing.