Israel’s removal of metal detectors at entrances to the Temple Mount on Tuesday failed to reduce Israeli-Palestinian tensions, as senior Palestinian Islamic leaders ruled out a return of worshipers to al-Aksa Mosque for the time being.
At a meeting that included Sheikh Abdul Azim Salhab, chairman of the Wakf Muslim religious trust; Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem; and Sheikh Ekrema Sabri, chairman of the higher Islamic Council; it was decided that there would be no entry for prayers at al-Aksa, and that a sit-in protest launched ten days ago at Lions’ Gate near the mosque would continue.
Islamic authorities decided to halt entry of worshipers into the mosque compound in response to Israel’s installation of the metal detectors.
While Israeli officials said the detectors were for security, Palestinians said they were a step toward Israeli takeover of the mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.
Last week, clashes erupted in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, leaving four Palestinians dead. Solidarity protests against Israel were held from Kuala Lumpur to Khartoum.
Muslim worshipers pray in protest outside of Temple Mount (Jeremy Sharon)
On Friday night, a Palestinian infiltrated the West Bank settlement of Halamish
and stabbed to death three members of the Salomon family. He had written on Facebook that he would take action for the sake of al-Aksa.
Late Tuesday, at the outset of a separate meeting of the Palestinian political leadership in Ramallah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appeared to suggest that security cooperation with Israel – which he suspended on Friday – would remain frozen despite the removal of the detectors.
“What we have decided is to freeze the security cooperation, and this is what we are doing,” Abbas said, adding during the meeting, “We want to study what has happened and see what we will do.”
Meanwhile, PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi said the removal of the metal detectors had not resolved the crisis over al-Aksa. “Other systems of control are also just as dangerous,” she told The Jerusalem Post. “Israel wants to demonstrate it can control and exercise sovereignty using the pretext of security.
“Israel has to stop trying to find ways of expropriating the whole compound of Al-Haram al-Sharif [Temple Mount],” she added.
There were also not any sign of a cooling of tensions at Tuesday’s PA cabinet meeting held in al-Ram, a suburb of Jerusalem.
According to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa, PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said: “The Israeli government as the occupying power bears complete responsibility for the violation of blessed al-Aksa Mosque, and all the attempts of the occupation to Judaize Jerusalem and change its historic characteristics and obliterate its Arab Palestinian identity.”
Last Friday, Abbas declared a freeze on contact with Israel to protest the metal detectors, which were installed after a deadly attack at the entrance to the Temple Mount by three Israeli Arab gunmen.
A statement issued by the religious leaders after their meeting said they had “authorized the directorate of the Islamic Wakf in Jerusalem to prepare an initial report on the situation inside and outside blessed al-Aksa Mosque to investigate what has taken place in terms of [Israeli] aggression inside and outside al-Aksa. In light of the report, a decision will be taken regarding entering al-Aksa Mosque and dismantling the sit-in strike that began 10 days ago.”
The security cabinet voted early Monday morning to remove the detectors, a decision that came after Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Nadav Argaman returned from discussions on the matter in Jordan.
The Prime Minister’s Office denied that the decision was linked to Jordan’s release of the Israeli security guard who was stabbed in the embassy compound on Sunday and shot and killed his assailant and another person at the scene.
Environmental Protection and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked voted against the decision, arguing that while they agreed to the removal of the metal detectors, the cameras should remain. They were outvoted by the ministers who heard briefings from the IDF and Shin Bet warning of near-catastrophic consequences if the situation on the Temple Mount were not returned to what it was before the July 14 attacks, meaning without the metal detectors or cameras.
The cabinet decided that instead of the metal detectors, less visible but highly sophisticated cameras would be placed in their stead that could determine if someone were carrying weapons or explosives.
The technology – which will cost in the hundreds of millions of shekels – also reportedly includes face identification software.
It will take an estimated six months for these to be purchased and installed, however.
The PMO issued a statement after the meeting saying the security cabinet “accepted the recommendation of all of the security bodies to incorporate security measures based on advanced technologies (‘smart checks’) and other measures instead of metal detectors in order to ensure the security of visitors and worshipers in the Old City and on the Temple Mount.”
According to the statement, the Israel Police will “reinforce its units and carry out additional actions as necessary in order to ensure the security of visitors on the Mount” until the implementation of the new plan.
The new plan will cost some NIS 100 million to implement.
Meanwhile, tensions will likely remain high given the decision by the senior Islamic leaders that the sit-in at Lions’ Gate will continue, and that Palestinians will “continue to pray close to the gates and plaza of al-Aksa and in the streets of Jerusalem.”
Unless Abbas decides to accept the removal of the metal detectors as a step forward, the situation will likely deteriorate.
The decision to install high-technology cameras in place of the metal detectors is, according to east Jerusalem Palestinian leadership, another Israeli unilateral decision taken without consulting the rightful protectors of al-Aksa.
“The decision of entering al-Aksa is a decision of magnitude for the nation and its sons, and when we go to Aksa to pray in it, we will be with every Palestinian in his force and components,” said Hussein. “Until now, no decision has been taken to enter and pray in al-Aksa.”
Salhab accused Israeli personnel of going on a rampage when authorities closed the mosque compound for 48 hours. “We don’t know the aggressions done inside blessed al-Aksa Mosque after its closure and the banning of entry for 48 hours during which there was rampaging with all the contents of the offices and the Islamic museum and the center for manuscripts and historic records.”
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld responded that, “We’re not familiar with any such allegations. I’m not familiar with any going into offices. All the steps taken were only security measures to prevent a further attack. The investigation continued into how weapons were smuggled into al-Aksa and used in the attack.”
Meanwhile, Reuters reported from Amman that several thousand Jordanians urged their government on Tuesday to close the Israeli Embassy and scrap the peace treaty during the funeral of Muhammad Jawawdah, 16, the Jordanian assailant killed by the Israeli security guard in the embassy compound on Sunday.Herb Keinon contributed to this report.