Palestinian joy and declarations of victory at the lifting of Israeli security measures at the entrances to al-Aksa Mosque turned into anger and predictions of possible large scale violence on Friday, after clashes erupted Thursday afternoon when Palestinians returned to the shrine for the first time in two weeks.
PLO executive committee member Wasel Abu Yusuf termed the behavior of the Israeli security forces “very dangerous,” after thousands streamed into the mosque compound on the Temple Mount for afternoon prayers.
While police said the Palestinians began the violence by throwing stones, Palestinian leaders said it was the police who were responsible for starting it. Nasser al-Kurd, a Palestinian merchant, told Al Jazeera television that merchants trying to bring candy into the compound were beaten by security personnel and that angry youths responded by throwing stones. “Soldiers kicked us, beat us and took the candy from us,” Kurd said.
“Tomorrow is Friday prayers, and today the leadership called on people to come and pray at al-Aksa,” Abu Yusuf told The Jerusalem Post.
“The results tomorrow depend on the army, police and security bodies. If the suppression and closure of gates continues, it will create a battle in Jerusalem. This type of behavior is a spark and makes religious war. This behavior brings us back to the zero point.”
Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoner Club and a leader in Fatah, said the police behavior was “terrible.”
Palestinians celebrate following removal of security at Temple Mount
“It has to be understood that force won’t work. Jerusalem is so sensitive that you have to draw the conclusion that [creating] facts on the ground and coercion are not the way. The government is trying to create a mentality that Arabs understand only force, and the soldiers are influenced by incitement from the government,” he said.
“If there is wise leadership there need not be an explosion, but the government [ministers] are competing for the rightwing vote. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, [Education Minister Naftali] Bennett and also [Yesh Atid chairman Yair] Lapid are competing over who can be more extreme.
“Tomorrow will be a dangerous and sensitive day,” Fares continued. “If the police and Border Police take a decision to act with restraint and allow this day to pass even if the Palestinian people feels victorious and displays happiness, things will go peacefully. But if the Israelis continue to try to show who is sovereign in Jerusalem it will be dangerous. If the Palestinian joy turns into a strategic test for the State of Israel there will be an explosion.”
Earlier on Thursday, Palestinian leaders approved a return of worshipers to al-Aksa Mosque and proclaimed the achievement of a great victory after Israel gave way to street protests and diplomatic pressure and met Palestinian demands to remove all the new security measures it had installed at entrances to the Temple Mount.
The official Palestinian Authority news agency Wafa quoted President Mahmoud Abbas as saying that afternoon prayers would be held at the mosque, after it was confirmed matters had returned to what they were prior to July 14, when Israel installed metal detectors and other equipment after a deadly attack just outside the Temple Mount by three Arab gunmen who used weapons that had been smuggled onto the Mount.
Abbas “praised the steadfastness of Jerusalem Muslims and Christians in the face of the Israeli measures against al-Aksa and said their stand was such that the right would prevail and the wrong would pass away,” Wafa reported.
Abu Yusuf termed the lifting of the Israeli measures “a great achievement for the defenders of al-Aksa and for the Palestinian people against all the efforts to solidify the occupation against blessed al-Aksa Mosque.”
Israel said the security measures were needed to prevent further attacks, but Palestinians viewed them as a step toward Israel taking control of al-Aksa.
Four Palestinians were killed in clashes that erupted over the dispute and Palestinians refrained from entering the mosque until the Israeli measures were reversed. Instead they held a sit-in at the Lions’ Gate entry point and held prayers in the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City. Last Friday, a Palestinian youth stabbed to death three members of the Salomon family in the West Bank’s Halamish settlement. He left behind a Facebook post saying he was acting on behalf of al-Aksa.
At the same time, protests of solidarity with the Palestinians were held across the Muslim world, from Kuala Lumpur to Khartoum, and the dispute strained Israel’s relations with Jordan, which is custodian of the mosque according to the 1994 peace treaty between the two countries. Turkey also sharply denounced the measures.
On Monday, Israel removed the metal detectors and cameras, but Palestinian leaders said this was insufficient and that all equipment including camera stands and railings had to be removed. They called a “day of rage” for Friday to protest what they saw as continued Israeli infringement on the mosque.
But after Israel took down the rest of the equipment, Islamic leaders declared they were satisfied and called on worshipers to return to the mosque. A statement issued by Abdul Azeem Salhab, the head of the Wakf Islamic trust that administers the site; Ekrema Sabri, the head of the Higher Islamic Council in the West Bank and east Jerusalem; and Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, said: “The occupation has removed the stands for cameras, bridges for cameras and the railings on the ground. This is a great and honorable victory for the sons of the Palestinian people with the occupation going back on its evil measures against al-Aksa Mosque in the face of the steadfastness of our people.”
Ghassan Khatib, a former PA minister who is now vice president of Bir Zeit University, north of Ramallah, said the episode pointed out that “Israel has failed to digest east Jerusalem and make it part of united Jerusalem. This has revealed the big lie of ‘united Jerusalem.’ “This is a victory [for the Palestinians].
They succeeded in preventing this change to the status quo. There were popular and [PA] government efforts and they prevented it. The lesson is that Israel doesn’t have a free hand in Jerusalem, and for us it shows that the Palestinian public still has the potential for carrying out popular struggle and when they do it in the right way they can reach achievements,” he said.
Of Abbas, who last Friday declared a freeze on “all contacts” with Israel to back up the protesters, Khatib said: “He played it in a clever way, he was consistent with popular sentiment and let it go in the way the street wanted it to go and appeared supportive. It was good for him.”