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Hundreds of Israelis take to Al-Aqsa during slain 13-year-old girl's memorial

July 12, 2016 6:13 P.M. (Updated: July 13, 2016 11:25 A.M.)
JERUSALEM (Ma’an) -- Hundreds of Israelis entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem on Tuesday morning, as part of a larger memorial service for 13-year-old Hallel Ariel, an Israeli girl who was stabbed to death in her bedroom in the illegal Israeli settlement Kiryat Arba by a teenage Palestinian earlier this month.

Israeli police spokesperson Luba al-Samri said in a statement that dozens of “foreign and non-Muslim” tourists on Tuesday morning visited al-Haram al-Sharif, using the Muslim term for the compound, which is also known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

Israeli media reported that the attendees numbered in the hundreds.

Al-Samri added that after Hallel’s parents met with Jerusalem police commander Yoram Halevy near the Moroccan Gate entrance to Al-Aqsa, they toured the compound together. The visit was completed “without any mentionable exceptional events,” according to al-Samri.

Witnesses told Ma’an that Muslim worshipers had serious difficulties accessing the compound and that Israeli police officers held the ID cards of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem who entered the compound, while Palestinian citizens of Israel were denied entry altogether.

The Waqf (Islamic Endowment) that controls the holy site said in a statement that 285 Israelis entered the compound on Tuesday morning.

According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Israeli visitors "guarded by dozens of police officers uttered blessings and were answered by calls of 'amen,'" in violation of regulations regarding non-Muslim worship on the site.

Witnesses said Israelis started to arrive at 7:30 a.m. in groups, and that the largest group consisted of some 88 Israelis, which included Halevy and several high ranking officers.

A number of right-wing members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, joined the Ariel family for the memorial service.

The MKs included Yehuda Glick and Oren Hazan from the Likud party, Bezalel Smotrich from the Jewish Home party, as well as Israel’s Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel -- also of Jewish Home -- who gathered just outside of the compound, as Knesset members were banned in October from entering the site by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque, revered as the third holiest site in Islam, is located in East Jerusalem, a part of the internationally recognized Palestinian territory which has been occupied by the Israeli army for almost 50 years.

It is also venerated as Judaism's most holy place, as it sits where Jews believe the First and Second Temples once stood. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and some Jewish extremists have called for the destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque so as to build a Third Temple in its place.

Because of the sensitive nature of the Al-Aqsa compound, Israel maintains a compromise with the Islamic trust that controls it to not allow non-Muslim prayers in the area. However, Israeli forces regularly escort Jewish visitors to the site, in an attempt to challenge the status quo and leading to tensions with Palestinian worshipers.

Israeli news site Ynet quoted Minister Uri Ariel -- a cousin of Hallel's father -- as saying: "The entire nation of Israel is one big Ariel family. With God's help, we will not have to fast for Tisha B'Av this year,” referring to the fast some religious Jews fast undergo for the holiday to commemorate the anniversary of a number of disasters in Jewish history, primarily the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

“We support the prime minister in making the right decision to allow every Jew to visit the Temple Mount."

Glick, a prominent far-right “Temple Mount activist” also hinted at his intentions to reverse the ban on MKs visiting Al-Aqsa after he was sworn into the Knesset in May.

Hallel’s father addressed attendees of the memorial outside the compound, reportedly saying, "The world needs this heart,” referring to the Temple Mount. “Otherwise, blood will continue to spill. The world is waiting for us to bring the light and banish the darkness.”

Since a 17-year-old Palestinian boy broke into the Ariel home in Kiryat Arba in the southern West Bank district of Hebron and stabbed Hallel to death, Israel’s right-wing government has been re-energized in pursuing a number of projects aimed at strengthening and expanding housing for Israelis residing in illegal settlements across the occupied West Bank, particularly in Kiryat Arba.

Meanwhile, a series of measures have been imposed on Palestinian civilians, such sealing entire villages in the West Bank and restricting movement for tens -- if not hundreds -- of thousands of residents, and revoking thousands of work permits, in what rights groups have called “collective punishment” and illegal under international law.

Hallel, an Israeli-American dual citizen, is one of some 32 other Israelis to be have been killed by Palestinians since a wave of unrest swept across the occupied Palestinian territory over the past several months, which has seen more than 220 Palestinian attackers, alleged attackers, and protesters killed, including the teen who took Hallel’s life.

While the majority of Israeli deaths have been civilians, including at least 12 settlers, the vast majority of attacks and attempted attacks have been carried out against armed Israeli soldiers, with many of the Palestinians killed being termed by rights groups and the United Nations as apparent "extrajudicial executions."

Tensions around the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound have been a main contributor to the increasing unrest that began in October, after right-wing Israelis made frequent visits to the site during a succession of Jewish holidays last fall.

Earlier this year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the wave of attacks, but said that Israeli security measures were failing to "address the profound sense of alienation and despair driving some Palestinians -- especially young people."

He added: "As oppressed peoples have demonstrated throughout the ages, it is human nature to react to occupation, which often serves as a potent incubator of hate and extremism."

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