There have been 4,500 visits by Israeli Jews to the Temple Mount since the beginning of the year, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told the cabinet on Monday, and those Jews were not allowed to bring accouterments of religious ritual.
Aharonovitch's remarks came during a briefing he gave the ministers on the recent tensions on the Temple Mount, sparked variously by unfounded rumors that the Israeli authorities were going to allow Jewish prayer there, or that Israel was digging under the site. Most halachic authorities, the ministers were reminded, forbid Jewish entrance to the site.
By contrast to the 4,500 visits by Israeli Jews (not all of them "unique visitors," but some rather repeat ones), some 140,000 Muslims prayed on the Temple Mount during one recent Friday afternoon in Ramadan.
Aharonovitch said that so far in 2009 there have been more than 200,000 visits by tourists to the site.
A visit by a group of French tourists there on the eve of Yom Kippur sparked a near riot, one the ministers saw Sunday on video taken by surveillance cameras.
The ministers also saw footage of stones raining down on border policemen protecting two of the tourists, as well as of border police officers' skirmishes with stone-throwing rioters in the Old City's alleyways.
Aharonovitch said that the incidents there needed to be put into perspective, and that there was a huge gap between what was happening on the ground, and the perception of massive unrest. Some Arab television networks, the cabinet was told, used footage from previous riots on the Temple Mount to create a more dramatic impression.
According to Aharonovitch, from mid-September until Friday there were in Jerusalem some 48 rock-throwing incidents, 12 gasoline bombings, and the stabbing of a soldier in Shuafat, in the city's northeast. Some 36 border policemen were lightly wounded, and 112 people were arrested, 23 of whom are still in custody.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu related to the incidents in his remarks at the opening of the cabinet session, saying, "Last week, extremist elements tried to undermine quiet and peaceful life in Jerusalem. An extremist minority disseminated lies to the effect that we intend to dig, or were actually digging, under the Temple Mount. I would like to make it clear that this is an outright lie."
Netanyahu said he appreciated that "the decisive majority of Israeli Arabs were not dragged after these provocations and did not allow the extremists to exploit the lies."
"I would like to appeal to Israel's Arab citizens, who want to live good and peaceful lives here, and tell you that you are an inseparable part of the State of Israel," he said. "We in the government want and will act so that you have fully equal opportunities in all areas - education, employment and infrastructures."
The flip side to the equation, he said later in the cabinet meeting, was that Israel expected Israeli Arabs to "respect the norms of good citizenship" and obey the law.
During the discussion, Vice Premier Silvan Shalom criticized what he said was the lenient punishment meted out to the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Raed Salah, who called on Muslims to become "martyrs" to defend the Aksa Mosque. The government should have appealed a Jerusalem Magistrate's Court decision to banish Salah from the capital for a month, and ask instead for more severe punishment, Shalom said.
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