newsIsrael at War

Israel upholding freedom of worship during Ramadan

"Maybe the scene seems calm, but under the surface there's a boiling tension," says the PMO's Arab-media spokesman.

Muslims attend Friday prayers on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, March 24, 2023. Photo by Jamal Awad/Flash90.
Muslims attend Friday prayers on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, March 24, 2023. Photo by Jamal Awad/Flash90.

Despite heightened tensions five months into Israel’s war with Hamas, Jerusalem remains committed to upholding freedom of worship, Israeli officials told foreign press at a special Ramadan briefing in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

“We take pride in being a nation that welcomes all faiths and protects freedom of religion and worship,” said Tal Heinrich, spokeswoman for the Prime Minister’s Office.

While Israel hasn’t placed any restrictions on Arab-Israeli Muslims who wish to visit the Temple Mount during the month-long holiday, age restrictions have been imposed on Palestinian Arabs coming from Judea and Samaria, with only men over 35 and women over 30 allowed to enter.

“We cannot pretend that everything is fine, that everything is calm, as if war is not raging on in Gaza. We have an obligation to protect our people,” said Ofir Gendelman, PMO spokesperson to the Arab media.

Since the start of 2024, Israel has foiled 250 terror attacks emanating from Judea and Samaria. This compares to 500 total foiled attacks for the entirety of 2023, Gendelman told JNS.

Terrorist groups are energized by the Oct. 7 Hamas invasion and highly motivated to strike at Israel, he said. It’s not just Hamas, but also cells linked to Islamic Jihad and Fatah. “There were even cells that are sympathetic to Islamic State that were busted in Jerusalem,” he said.

“Maybe the scene seems calm, but under the surface there’s a boiling tension,” Gendelman said.

According to Mirit Ben-Maor, director of communications for the Israel Police, hundreds of officers have spread out in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, helping the first two days of Ramadan to pass off smoothly. Police estimate 20,000-25,000 worshipers visited the Temple Mount on Wednesday night, and more are expected over the weekend.

The police have placed a stronger focus this year on countering incitement, especially online, according to Ben-Maor. A special team has been set up for the purpose, and Israel has already indicted about 170 people for incitement. In 2022, only some 25 people were indicted for incitement, she said.

The main reason for the uptick is Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre, according to Ben-Maor.

“We have noticed that since Oct. 7, also before that but especially since…there is a lot of incitement on the net,” she said. Hamas is “working tirelessly” to convince Arab-Israelis to commit acts of violence, she said.

Online incitement is easy to recognize because it’s always the same three ideas, according to Gendelman: 1) Israel wants to hand over the Al-Aqsa Mosque to the Jews, 2) Israel is tunneling underneath the Al-Aqsa Mosque and 3) Israel wants to change the religious status quo on the Temple Mount.

All the other rumors are “basically offshoots of these three main stories,” he said, noting that Arab-Israelis ignore these narratives “because they know they’re fake.”

“Unfortunately, this fake news is not only appearing on social media, but there are various Arab media outlets that are spewing these kinds of lies all the time. So it is a challenge for us to fight the lies and fake news, but we’re doing it,” he said.

To help keep things calm, Israel is in touch with Arab countries with which it has agreements, said Lior Ben-Dor, chief coordinator for public diplomacy and Arab media in the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

“We see the great importance in maintaining the dialogue with our partners, who have signed these treaties with us and share common interests,” he said. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs fosters an open channel for diplomatic and political dialogue, despite the differences of opinions and complexity and sensitivity surrounding the situation.”

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