Clashes in Al-Aqsa Mosque Amid Jewish Zealots’ Attempts To Perform Religious Sacrifice
Reporter's Notebook: The violence erupted following a far-right activist's campaign encouraging efforts to perform a Jewish ritual at the site holy to Jews and Muslims. A close look reveals the sensitivity of the issue for both sides.
When five undercover Israel Police officers arrived, seemingly out of the nowhere, and detained Mendy Starch, he did not seem too surprised. Despite the cautionary measures he took, he knew that being detained, and perhaps arrested, was always the most likely ending to his annual attempt to reach the Temple Mount on the eve of Passover.
Starch is the 18th person the Israel Police arrested this year for attempting to perform the ritual Passover sacrifice on the Temple Mount – likely the most politically sensitive site in Israel, due to its holy status to both Jews and Muslims.
An hour earlier, I had accompanied him as he entered the Old City of Jerusalem and heard about the ideology behind this attempt. His companion, the owner of a goat, which was the intended sacrifice, was arrested just moments prior to our arrival, but Starch and another friend decided to approach the site nevertheless.
“There are only two commandments in Judaism that if you don’t follow, you’re facing extermination: Keeping Shabbat, and the Passover sacrifice,” Starch told The Media Line.
That, he explains, is one reason he and a small minority of other ultra-Orthodox Jews do everything they can to recreate the ancient ceremony of slaughtering a goat on the Temple Mount on the eve of the Passover holiday.
“We lost 2,000 years of worship and performing our rituals because of the exile. Any mitzvah (religious commandment) you do outside of Israel is just to preserve the tradition. The core is worshiping in the land of Israel,” he added.
Nationalism without religion is hollow. We believe Judaism needs both to thrive. And we are here to encourage the religious side.
The Passover sacrifice was a ceremony performed in the Jewish Temple almost 2,000 years ago, and ceased after the destruction of the Second Temple, in the year 70 CE. Most modern-day Jews don’t believe this sacrifice is a requirement, however.
Standing on the Temple Mount is religiously prohibited, according to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which is the mainstream Orthodox Jewish religious authority in the country. But Starch, a follower of prominent extreme right-wing rabbis, doesn’t recognize the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, claiming it is “a political, not a religious party.” Instead, he follows Rabbi Dov Lior and Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who are recognized by the ultra-Orthodox-nationalist sector. Both rabbis were interrogated by the Israel Police in the past for incitement and racism.
“Nationalism without religion is hollow. We believe Judaism needs both to thrive. And we are here to encourage the religious side,” Starch says of his ideology, as we enter Jerusalem’s Old City only a few hours after violent clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians erupted in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Policemen seem to be around every corner, and Starch lowers his voice every time we pass by them.
“Hamas and we have a mutual understanding,” he says, referring to Jewish minority groups attempting to worship on Temple Mount. “We both realize it’s a religious war, and how important the Temple Mount is. We broadcast on the same wavelength, in that sense.”
A day earlier, the Palestinian Islamist terror group called on the masses to gather at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the second Friday of Ramadan, and “protect the mosque and Jerusalem from the invasion of Jewish settlers” in order to “thwart plans to desecrate the mosque by slaughtering sacrifices.”
Hundreds of Palestinians answered the call, and arrived at the mosque by dawn, stockpiling rocks and fireworks. Videos taken on the ground show Israel Police officers entering the Al-Aqsa compound and facing the rioters, some of whom threw rocks and fireworks toward the Western Wall. Some 150 Palestinians and three Israel Police officers were injured in the clashes; some 400 Palestinians were arrested, and most were released shortly after.
“We want the city to be peaceful, but it can’t happen if these extremists try to have sacrifices on the Al-Aqsa compound. The clashes are only their fault,” Mohammad, a 27-year-old Jerusalem-born Palestinian man, told me later the same day.
“The people you see here – merchants, pilgrims, Arabs from all across the country – none of them want violence. But if Jews had reached Al-Aqsa today, 100,000 Palestinians would rise against them,” he said. Refusing to describe himself as religious, he added: “I don’t understand why they insist on having the sacrifice in a place holy to Muslims. It’s offensive. Jews have the Western Wall and we have Al-Aqsa. They shouldn’t be intruding.”
In a statement following morning clashes on Friday, Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai said: “We won’t allow any violence toward officers or civilians, and we won’t allow any harm to Muslims who want to arrive at the mount to pray during Ramadan. The rioters are the ones hurting the mountain and Muslim worshipers on their holy day.”
A large number of Arab and Muslim states condemned the entrance of Israeli security forces to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, among them Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The United States Embassy in Israel said in a statement that it is “closely monitoring events in Jerusalem during this sacred holiday period for Jews, Muslims, and Christians,” and urged “everyone to refrain from actions that further escalate tensions.” The European Union spokesman said that the EU “follows with deep concern the latest upsurge of violence in West Bank and clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque, and calls for the stop of violence.”
We want the city to be peaceful, but it can’t happen if these extremists try to have sacrifices on the Al-Aqsa compound. The clashes are only their fault.
Minutes after Starch’s arrest, some 50,000 Palestinian worshipers flooded the narrow streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, as they left afternoon prayers in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Many of them are residents of the West Bank, who rarely get a chance to see Jerusalem, and who arrived at Al-Aqsa as part of Ramadan month special permits issued by Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories unit (COGAT). Following several violent incidents in the West Bank last week, permits were limited to women and to men over the age of 50 and children under 12. Those who did enter seemed thrilled, and many recorded every minute of the slow walk toward the Damascus Gate on their cellphones.
“It could and should always be peaceful like it is right now,” said Harb Qazzem, a Bethlehem resident who entered the city with his wife and son for the afternoon prayer. When asked about the attempts to sacrifice a goat on the Al-Aqsa compound he said: “I don’t mind people performing any religious ritual they want, but they must be respectful. If I would come to your house and slaughter a sacrifice in your living room, surely you would kick me out, right?”
While tensions around the Passover sacrifice seem to be gone for now, there are still another two weeks until the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is considered the most sensitive time of the year in Jerusalem. Both the Israel Police and the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem realize that, even now, calm is far from guaranteed, and that the next trigger for violence could be right around the corner.