Clashes broke out last night in the holy city of Hevron at the start of the Jewish fast of Tisha B'Av, after Muslims disrupted Jewish prayers at the Cave of the Patriarchs.
The Cave – known as Me'arat Hamachpela in Hebrew – is the second-holiest site in Judaism after Jerusalem's Temple Mount, as the burial place of most of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs. It is shared under a unique agreement between Jews and Muslims, who claimed the site as theirs after building a mosque atop the Jewish shrine.
The sensitive arrangement is usually maintained fairly well, although Jewish holy books and other items are sometimes destroyed by Muslim worshippers.
But on Saturday night a provocation threatened to break down the delicate balance when the muezzin – the Muslim man who issues the traditional Islamic call to prayers – disrupted Jewish worshippers reading the Scroll of Eicha (Lamentations) on the night of Tisha B'Av.
The Jewish prayer service was repeatedly disrupted as the muezzin began broadcasting the Islamic call to prayer on loudspeakers – despite the fact that it was not time for Muslim prayers.
After "dozens" of unanswered complaints by Jews to police at the holy site, tensions boiled over when several dozen Jewish youths responded to the provocation by barricading the muezzin in his room, preventing him from leaving.
Only at that point did border police arrive – to disperse the angry Jewish protesters. Clashes ensued and several arrests were made; local Jews say police used teargas against them despite the protest initially being peaceful.
One of the leaders of the Jewish prayers, veteran nationalist activist and Hevron resident Baruch Marzel, placed blame for the incident squarely on the shoulders of "the heads of the security agencies in Hevron, who are trying all the time to appease the Arab enemy in the name of the 'status quo,' and to harm the Jews."
Marzel also cited the decision to reopen several Arab stores facing the embattled Jewish community in the city, which were previously shut after being used as bases by Muslim terrorists to attack local Jews. He warned that the decision threatened "an explosion" of violence "after years of quiet."
In a statement, the administration of the Cave of the Patriarchs said simply that "in the middle of the reading of the Scroll of Lamentations at the Machpela complex the muezzin began to interfere via the call (to prayer) at the site.
"The (Lamentations) reading was stopped and a confrontation developed with Jewish worshippers."