Israeli government and court disagree over Jewish prayer at Flashpoint Shrine

Israel on Sunday reaffirmed a longstanding agreement with Muslim authorities that prevents Jewish prayer at a disputed Jerusalem holy site, pushing back against a lower Israeli court that questioned the legality of police action against violators.

The Al Aqsa Mosque compound, which Jews revere as a remnant of their two ancient temples, is a hotbed of Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Under the decades-old “status quo,” Israel only allows Jews to visit if they refrain from religious rites.

Three Jewish minors, ordered to stay away for 15 days by police after bowing and singing a Bible prayer during a tour of the compound, challenged the ban in the magistrate’s court of Jerusalem. He ruled in their favor on Sunday.

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Police argued that the callers disrupted officers’ duties and threatened public order. But Judge Zion Saharai, while noting that he had no intention of interfering in law enforcement policy, said they had not “raised (d) any concern of prejudice to national security, public safety or personal safety”.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued a statement calling the move “a grave assault on the historic status quo…and a blatant defiance of international law.”

Jordan, a US-backed Israeli security partner that serves as Al Aqsa’s watchdog, has also expressed concern about Jewish visits to the compound.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said the decision would be appealed to the Jerusalem Upper District Court.

“There is no change, and no change is planned, to the status quo of the Temple Mount,” he said in a statement, using the Jewish term for the site Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary.

“The trial court’s decision focuses exclusively on the issue of the conduct of the minors presented before it, and does not include a broader decision regarding freedom of worship on the Temple Mount.”

With the increase in the number of Jewish visits, including during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan which this year coincided with the Jewish holiday of Passover, the Palestinians cried foul.

The decision came a week before nationalist Jews are due to hold an annual flag march in Jerusalem’s Old City, marking its capture by Israel in a 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians, who want the Old City and other parts of East Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for future state.

Hamas, a Palestinian group that waged a war in Gaza against Israel last year, partly fueled by tensions in Jerusalem, described the planned route for the flag march through a Muslim quarter of the Old City as “adding fuel to the fire”.

“I warn the enemy against committing such crimes,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a televised address.

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