Blessing of the Kohanim at the Kotel 2008
Blessing of the Kohanim at the Kotel 2008Israel news photo: Tovia Singer

American officials have warned U.S. citizens not to enter Jerusalem's Old City during the week-long holiday of Sukkot, when celebrations are at their height and numerous activities for families and children are offered almost around the clock.

The warning by the U.S. State Department, issued on Friday, names Monday in particular as a day to avoid the spiritual heart of Israel's capital city -- the day when the Kohanim, or Jewish priestly class -- bless the People of Israel at the Kotel (Western Wall).

Thousands of Kohanim, Jewish men descended from members of the priestly class in the House of Israel, gather three times each year to perform the Birkat HaKohanim blessing on each festival day during which Jewish pilgrims are enjoined to "go up" to Jerusalem.

"The final two of the local autumn holidays, Sukkot and Simhat Torah, will be celebrated this weekend and next. American citizens should avoid the Old City for one week. Vehicle traffic in and around the Old City will be restricted by the Israeli National Police (INP)," reads the Warden Message from the U.S. State Department, dated October 2.

"Monday, October 5, is expected to draw the largest crowds due to the annual pilgrimage by Jewish worshipers who will assemble at the Western Wall for special prayers. Additionally, political and religious tensions are expected to be high in the areas immediately adjacent to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound throughout this period. A large police presence in the area may provoke spontaneous violence in the form of civil unrest and police actions," the warning continues.

Just such a scenario almost became a reality Sunday morning, when Fatah-linked Islamic clerics on the Temple Mount issued a public call for Arabs to "come and defend the Mount."

The threat prompted Israeli police to cordon off the site in order to prevent a riot similar to the one ignited one week ago. Last Sunday, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, Arab worshipers started hurling rocks when Jews arrived on the Mount -- the holiest site in Judaism --  to prepare for the holiday. Four people, including two police officers, were wounded.

The warning concludes by informing readers that "the crowded environment could result in an uptick in criminal activity to include pickpockets, physical assaults and other crimes. American citizens should avoid crowds and walking or driving around the Old City. Carry a mobile phone and stay cognizant of your surroundings," the wary American is told.

As elsewhere on its site, the State Department failed to point out that the presence of the Israel Police is required in order to secure the safety of other people in the area -- tourists in the Old City, the Western Wall plaza and on the Temple Mount, as well as Jewish worshipers at the Wall.

A constant security presence has been necessary due to the long history of violence perpetrated by Arab worshippers at the mosque, a fact omitted by the State Department.

Moreover, in one alert posted on the State Department site, the U.S. government actually implies that it is the IDF that Americans must fear:

"American citizens have been seriously injured in demonstrations that have turned violent," U.S. citizens are warned. "Demonstrations can be particularly dangerous in areas such as checkpoints, settlements, military areas, and major thoroughfares where protesters are likely to encounter Israeli security forces."

The State Department has maintained a standard warning on its site against visiting Jerusalem. The warning, updated in August, "urges American citizens to remain vigilant while traveling through Jerusalem, especially within the commercial and downtown areas of West Jerusalem and the city center."

The Old City, it adds, is entirely off-limits to U.S. government personnel and their families after dark and "between the hours of 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. on Fridays," when it is noted that "Spontaneous or planned protests within the Old City are possible, especially after Friday prayers. Some of these protests have led to violent clashes." 

As in its other numerous warnings, the State Department carefully avoids publicizing the fact that the warning refers to the potential for violence by Arab worshippers, who pray on Fridays between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.