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Lapid accuses Arabs of ‘trying to hijack Al-Aqsa mosque’ to spark ‘violent conflict’

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 Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid strongly denied that Israel has changed a tenuous “status quo” on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and accused Arabs of violating the holy site throughout the Muslim month-long Ramadan festival, during a briefing with reporters on Sunday.

“In the past three weeks, there has been a dangerous effort underway in Jerusalem during Ramadan. Terrorist organizations have been trying to hijack the Al-Aqsa mosque in order to create an outbreak of violence in Jerusalem and from there a violent conflict across the country,” said Lapid. “Hamas and Islamic Jihad extremists burst into Al-Aqsa mosque in the early mornings, again and again. They brought weapons into the mosque. They threw rocks and explosives from within it and used it as a base to incite violent riots.”

Rioters have thrown stones and Molotov cocktails, as well as shot fireworks in the direction of Israeli soldiers on the Temple Mount, as well as thrown stones at Jewish worshippers at the adjacent Western Wall complex.

Despite the Arab-initiated violence, Israel has been accused of changing a sensitive status quo on the Temple Mount, which allows Jewish visitors but forbids Jewish prayer at the site. Lapid denied any such change had taken place, stating that “Israel is committed to the status quo on the Temple Mount. Muslims pray on the Temple Mount. Non-Muslims visit.”

Lapid added that “it is not Israel that endangered worshippers. It is the terrorist organizations who endangered them.”

He called the briefing in an attempt to contain diplomatic and public relations damage from friends and foes alike, who have blamed Israel for the flareup, as Israeli police have repeatedly been pressed into action to control Arab rioters.

The first large riot on the Temple Mount took place on April 15 during the second week of Ramadan. Israeli forces entered the Al-Aqsa mosque to remove Muslim rioters who had barricaded themselves inside. Some 300 Arabs were arrested. Minor clashes followed on Sunday. On Wednesday, rioters threw firebombs from inside the mosque, setting fire to the carpet at the entrance. Greater violence erupted on April 21, and April 22, as rioters began throwing stones and shooting fireworks at security forces.

Lapid said that the terrorists were seeking to provoke the police into entering the mosque for the sake of making viral videos to incite still greater violence. “The only reason Israeli police twice entered the mosque in recent weeks,” he said, was to clear the area of terrorists as tens of thousands of Muslim worshippers arrived. Israel’s security response prevented much greater violence, he insisted. “The moment the rioters were removed, the police left and ensured prayers could take place in peace.”

Responding to accusations, from the Arab League, that Israel was limiting Muslim worship at the prayer complex, Lapid said that 800,000 Muslim worshippers had prayed at the Temple Mount since the start of Ramadan. “During Ramadan, Israel ensured that hundreds of thousands of Muslims could go to the Temple Mount and pray at Al-Aqsa despite provocations by terrorist organizations, despite attempts to stoke violence.”

Lapid expressed disappointment in Jordan, which funds the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, the Muslim custodianship that manages the Islamic buildings on the Temple Mount. Jordanian Prime Minister Bisher Khasawneh praised the rioters, during a speech at Jordan’s parliament on April 18.

“I salute every Palestinian, and all the employees of the Jordanian Islamic Waqf, who proudly stand like minarets, hurling their stones in a volley of clay at the Zionist sympathizers defiling the Al-Aqsa Mosque under the protection of the Israeli occupation government,” stated Khasawneh.

“This speech Jordan’s prime minister gave in parliament [is] unacceptable from a friendly country, a country we have a peace agreement with, and a country that knows all so well the kind of effort we took in order to ensure prayers for the last two or three days,” said Lapid.

Israel’s foreign minister also criticized the “unbelievable amount of fake news and altered videos which have gone viral,” lamenting that some of it have “found its way into the mainstream media.”

‘The policy is strict’

Towards the start of the rioting, U.S. State Department Spokesman Ned Price said: “We call on all sides to exercise restraint, avoid provocative actions and rhetoric, and preserve the historic status quo on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.”

Reporters at the briefing challenged Lapid on Israel’s commitment to maintaining the status quo, as Israeli politicians themselves have called Israel’s policy into question.

On Saturday, Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai, stated on Israel’s Kan News television station there was “a certain escalation, a certain deterioration” at the holy site; with increased numbers of Jews visiting and even praying at the complex.

“There are a lot more Jews who are going up to the Temple Mount. There are some that stop on the way and pray, which was forbidden,” Shai said warning that “the price that we will pay later, all of us, will be huge.”

Last week, Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum told the BBC, that Jewish visits have “been going on for years now. It’s not new. It’s not any change in the status quo,” adding that “It’s a custom that a very, very limited group of Jewish people goes up to pray on the Jewish holidays” despite the ban.

Lapid contended that Shai was “misinformed,” and that Hassan-Nahoum was “just wrong.” Lapid said that while it’s impossible to have a fool-proof ban, and that there might be some instances of “quiet prayer” by Jewish visitors, such prayer is not encouraged by the government.

“The policy is strict,” said Lapid. “The prayer policy is unchanged.”

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