Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Iyar 5764 - April 28, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Flying Stones at the Kosel

by S. Fried

The whirring of a police helicopter over the Jerusalem skies Friday afternoon has become a part of the pre-Shabbos atmosphere. "Ah, it must be because of the Arabs at their Friday prayers on Har Habayis," the housewives say to themselves with a sigh. But still they keep an ear perked to be sure there's nothing to be worried about, that all is business as usual. When a second helicopter takes to the skies they become tense, and nervously ask other ladies if there's any news, and hope their husband, who just drove to the Kosel Maarovi for Minchah, comes home safe and sound.

According to newspaper reports, after the Muslims' prayers on Har Habayis one recent Friday, hundreds of Palestinians began throwing stones at police and at Jews praying at the Kosel. Thirty-five thousand Palestinians were on hand, a relatively small number compared to special occasions when the Friday prayers can draw 200,000-250,000 Muslims to Har Habayis.

The police did not lose their composure this time and immediately went to work forcefully dispersing the Palestinian rioters and protecting the Jews praying at the Kosel.

At a press conference following the incident, Major General Mickey Levy, commander of Jerusalem Police, explained that the police had no prior warnings about the possibility of unrest at Har Habayis, but heavy forces were brought to the gates of Har Habayis. "I issued an order to break through the gates and a few minutes later the policemen shot rubber bullets at low power, dummy grenades and tear gas."

When asked whether the police have information on unrest at Har Habayis on other occasions and whether riots are planned in advance (as seems to have been implied by the commander), the Jerusalem Police Spokesperson would not provide a full answer. The police had "intelligence speculation, not intelligence reports," she said. In such cases reinforcements are brought in.

"Notice that the Commander was on site with a large force," she told me. "Notice that they gained control quickly and the Muslim rioters dispersed quietly."


"The Kosel is a safe place," says HaRav Shmuel Rabinovich, rov of the Kosel Maarovi. Not long ago, parts of the Muhgrabi Gate support wall collapsed, filling the ezras noshim with rocks. (The wall supported a ramp leading to the gate.) Miraculously, none of the 150 women there at the time were harmed. HaRav Rabinovich, currently working on restoring the wall and the adjacent prayer room for women (which is badly in need of expansion), says the recent stone-throwing incident is a rarity.

He says the government and the police follow a policy of preempting stone- throwing at the Western Wall Plaza. "When there are intelligence reports or clear indications of the possibility of rioting, the police limit the number of people permitted to come for Friday worship. The restrictions apply to the number of Muslims allowed to go up to Har Habayis, or else an age limit is imposed.

"On tense days, only older people are allowed to go up. This time, there were no reports but there were concerns because of the struggle over the separation fence. Therefore, all of Jerusalem's top-ranking police commanders were on hand."

Nevertheless there was a bit of chaos, making it possible for the Muslims to throw rocks at police on Har Habayis and at Jews praying at the Kosel, after the Mufti finished his provocative sermon.

HaRav Rabinovich notes that the disorder was brief and that only a few relatively small rocks were thrown at the ezras noshim. Visitors were evacuated into the Kosel tunnels in the men's section. The women were brought to the tunnels set up for tourists. After a short time, they returned to where they had been praying.

On the Har Habayis side the wall is just six feet high, making it possible for Arabs to throw stones from a distance. The police generally do not allow them to come close to the wall.

During the first months of the present intifada the number of Jews coming to pray dropped dramatically while the number of Jewish and non-Jewish tourists was close to zero. Yet the regular, hard-core visitors, some of whom come every day regardless of weather conditions, are unwilling to forego praying at the Kosel.

Recently, the number of people coming to pray has increased considerably. Thousands walk to the Kosel every Shabbos and on Shabbos night a huge number of congregants are on hand.

Various expansion projects are currently underway, including extending the praying area into the plaza. Donations to the central tzedokoh fund go toward construction. This year the money collected will go toward kimcho dePischo.

But police are not about to allow a repeat of the "Har Habayis incidents," a traumatic experience for the police force whose bitter memories heighten police vigilance in preventing renewed outbreaks on Har Habayis.

The spark was ignited by then-Likud head Ariel Sharon. Today he invariably denounces inflammatory acts that heat up tensions between Arabs and Jews. But when he was in the opposition, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5761 (September 28, 2000), Sharon decided the time had come to demonstrate (or flaunt) Israeli sovereignty over Har Habayis. Analysts said that the Arabs were looking for an excuse to start hostilities after the failed Camp David talks, about a month earlier, and a small spark was enough to ignite a major conflagration, but even Sharon did not imagine how far the fires would spread.

Ariel Sharon went up to Har Habayis accompanied by a few of his ardent supporters like Reuven Rivlin, today Knesset Speaker, and Naomi Blumental, today out of favor due to bribery problems. Arab MKs were waiting for him there as a show of protest, along with a few hundred Palestinians who expressed their fury by throwing rocks.

The police fired rubber bullets and the Palestinians attacked. By the time the battle was over there were injuries on both sides, but Sharon announced, "Every Jew has a right to visit the Temple Mount," and echoed the words of Motta Gur after the fighting in 1967 by declaring, "The Temple Mount is in our hands."

The incident took place on a Thursday. The government and the police knew that the next day, when Muslims would arrive by the thousands as every week, would be ripe for unrest, but for some reason they failed to take suitable precautions. The police brought in reinforcements, but nonetheless allowed thousands of young Muslims looking for a fight to enter the Har Habayis area with large rocks and iron bars to throw at the police.

Another mistake was to station several police commanders inside Muhgrabi Gate, inside the Har Habayis compound. Another 1,000 policemen waited on the other side, ready to be called in. When the rioting began at 1:30, the commanders themselves absorbed the first volley of stones. Jerusalem District Commander Major General Ya'ir Yitzchaki was hit in the head and lost consciousness.

When the police burst in through Muhgrabi Gate, the rioters began to hurl rocks and metal rods in every direction, including onto the Western Wall Plaza. Dozens of Jews had to be evacuated immediately.

What exactly took place then and who started it remains the subject of debate, but the outcome is undisputed: seven Muslims were killed and hundreds of rioters and police were wounded.

Later, claims were made that the police were inadequately equipped with nonviolent anti-riot gear. Rather than beginning with water cannons or tear gas they started firing rubber bullets, which are highly controversial.

Clearly that time the riots were not spontaneous, but an act of protest against Ariel Sharon's visit to Har Habayis the day before, and they were intended to strengthen the Palestinians' claim of sovereignty over Har Habayis. Allegedly, the massive police action was not intended merely to disperse the riot, but on the political level to demonstrate Israeli control over the site.

In the aftermath, among the losers were the Jews who came to the Kosel regularly for prayers. For a long time many avoided coming, particularly on Fridays and, according to HaRav Rabinovich, only recently has participation returned to previous levels.

As a result of the "Temple Mount incidents" unrest spread to Israeli-Arabs as well. In Arab towns, loud objections to police conduct were voiced, but the protests seem to have been organized in advance. Violent rioting erupted in many locations and the police response was even more violent. Several Israeli-Arabs were killed and hundreds were injured. Friendly relations between Arabs and Jews were wrecked and hatred intensified. When it will subside nobody knows.

Following the riots of October 2000, the Or Commission was set up to investigate the incidents. The Commission's conclusions, published just a few months ago, include condemnations of every side, as well as several denouncements of individual figures. But they were not substantive enough to call for significant changes, either in terms of politics or practice.

Since then, the police have improved their guidelines regarding rioting on Har Habayis, notably by restricting access on days when tensions run high. But Palestinians cannot be totally denied access. "They have the right to worship," says Mickey Levy, but even this is not the main consideration in practice. Prohibiting Muslim worship on Har Habayis would stir the dispute over sovereignty, a longstanding point of contention that erupts every few years like a volcano.


History shows that violent outbreaks over Har Habayis and the Kosel Hama'arovi always stemmed from nationalist impulses rather than purely religious causes.

For hundreds of years the Kosel stood in ruins. Over the years Jews came to Eretz Yisroel in small numbers to go to the place from which the Shechinoh never departed, and these scattered few made no demands other than permission to visit the holy site.

The first person to set up a walled-in area for their convenience was the 16th- century (C.E.) sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, who wanted to draw European Jews to settle in or to visit Eretz Yisroel, in order to promote its development. At the time, no Muslims claimed that the Kosel was also an important site to Muslims, as has been often claimed over the past 100 years, to keep the Jews at a distance.

Nevertheless the Muslims were always loathe to allow the Jews to enter the Old City and the area of the Kosel, and they made a hole in the northern side of the wall to serve as a passageway to the Muslim market. They would also lead their donkeys through the Kosel area while Jews were praying and fouled the passageway. Neither did they hesitate to soil the area of the Kosel during the period of Jordanian rule, making no claims that the place held importance to them.

The British Mandate that began in 1917 sided with the Arabs from the start. The British feared the Zionist Movement and nationalism -- which were liable to lead to a demand for control of Eretz Yisroel -- and were also guided by simple antisemitism. But above all they were motivated by a plain analysis of the balance of power and opted to back the stronger side: the Arabs.

Apparently, the Mandate rulers decided to retain the status quo at the holy sites, but in the case of the Kosel the status quo meant that the grounds belonged to the Muslim Wakf. Jews had a right to pray there while standing, but were not permitted to bring chairs, tables, amudim, Aronos Kodesh, and other such articles, except at certain times of year.

The Riots of 5689 (1939) began on Yom Kippur, when a mechitzoh was brought in. They erupted full-force on Tisha B'Av when a young Beitar nationalist (who would later become one of the founding fathers of the Likud) held a demonstration at the Kosel, flying the Zionist flag. Provoked Muslims descended on the Jews praying at the Kosel, tearing and burning sifrei kodesh. The violence was stepped up on Friday and reached its peak on Shabbos in Hebron, Tzfas and other towns.

Still Going On

Little has changed since then. Periodically, groups like Ne'emanei Har Habayit or Third Temple activists try to go up to Har Habayis as a show of force, though all leading poskim have determined that walking on Har Habayis itself is prohibited. The inevitable reaction is disturbances by Moslem nationalist fanatics who throw rocks at the Western Wall Plaza to express their opposition to Jewish control there.

Milchemet Hamekomot Hakedoshim by Shmuel Berkovitz provides a brief survey of events. In Tishrei 5747 (October 1987) Gershon Salomon, leader of Ne'emanei Har Habayit, decided he would go up to pray on Har Habayis on Succos. Upon arrival he was met by hordes of inflamed Muslims who attacked him with rocks and bottles. Their zealous indignation did not subside with the retreat of Ne'emanei Har Habayit and they continued to rain rocks and bottles on the policemen who arrived at the scene and on the Western Wall Plaza. Three policemen and one of the Jews praying sustained injuries and the disturbances continued during Chol Hamoed Succos.

Other disturbances took place during the succeeding months, including a major flare-up when Ne'emanei Har Habayit announced on the eve of Succos 5749 that they were about to lay the cornerstone for the Third Temple. The subsequent rumors stirred another wave of rioting and unrest on Har Habayis and at the Kosel.

One year later, in October 1990, the first round of the "Temple Mount incidents" took place. This time, Ne'emanei Har Habayit decided to lay a cornerstone and erect a succah beside Muhgrabi Gate. In reaction, the Muslim clerics urged their followers to defend "the holy sites." They went from house to house summoning young Muslims from every Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem to gather at Har Habayis. The police tried to quell the storm but did not come adequately prepared to prevent violent unrest.

That day, 25,000 Jews came to pray and hear Bircas Kohanim. At the time, there were a mere 44 Border Patrol officers in the Har Habayis compound. Arabs began throwing large rocks at a procession of Ne'emanei Har Habayit and at policemen, who simply fled. The rioters attacked the police station, set two rooms on fire and broke the windows; only by retreating into the Wakf offices were the policemen spared from a massacre.

Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of Jews below sought refuge or ran toward the buses to take them away from the danger. Chaos reigned until a large police force arrived and forced its way onto Har Habayis, dispersing the rioters with rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammunition. Only after about an hour did the police manage to overcome the rioters.

By the time the smoke had lifted, 17 Muslims lay dead and 53 were injured. Dozens of Jews who had come to pray sustained injuries, along with some 20 policemen.

From a political standpoint, the incident caused heavy damage to the State of Israel. The UN Security Council and many countries condemned Israel for an allegedly unjustified use of force, while the Arabs expanded what became known as the "first intifada."

The Jewish provocateurs were not entirely responsible for rousing the Muslims on Har Habayis. Hatred toward Israel and the Israeli occupation is always present and just waiting for a spark to ignite the flames of unrest.

All of the violent outbreaks on the list took place on a Friday. One Friday in January 1988, several Jews at the Kosel were injured and one Friday in May of that year, a similar outbreak took place on the last day of Ramadan, this time a direct result of provocative statements in the sermon.


The excavation of the Western Wall Tunnels underneath the Muslim Quarter and the opening of a point of entry via the Moslem market became another focal point for clashes. This time the decision was made by Binyamin Netanyahu who declared, "The tunnels are open and will stay open."

From year to year the tension mounts and has grown worse under the present intifada. The police have learned their lessons through bitter experience and now they have developed effective means of systematically and quickly overcoming riots on Har Habayis, but this is akin to putting out local fires, and nothing more.

In light of the above, it should be easy to imagine the sigh of relief that issued from every mouth when the recent rioting ended swiftly. Perhaps the Muslims, too, are growing tired of the battle whose end is not in sight.


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