Thousands of Palestinian Muslims prayed in the streets near Jerusalem’s most contested holy site on Tuesday, heeding a call by clergy to not enter the shrine despite Israel’s seeming capitulation when it removed metal detectors it installed there a week earlier.
Muslim leaders said they would only call off the protests once they made sure Israel had restored the situation to what it was before the latest crisis.
Some Muslim officials alleged that Israel used the absence of Muslim clerics from the walled compound in the past week of protests to install new security cameras.
The continued standoff highlighted the deep distrust between Israel and the Palestinians when it comes to the shrine – the third-holiest in Islam and the most sacred in Judaism.
The esplanade, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, has been a lightning rod for rival religious and national narratives of the two sides. It has triggered major confrontations in the past.
Israel seemed eager to put the crisis behind it and restore calm after a week of prayer protests, street clashes and several incidents of deadly violence.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government also faced a growing backlash at home for what critics said was hasty decision-making and embarrassing policy zigzags.
In a face-saving compromise, Israel’s security Cabinet announced that in place of the metal detectors, it would employ nonintrusive “advanced technologies,” reportedly smart cameras that can detect hidden objects. The new security system is to be set up in the next six months at a cost of $28 million.
Meanwhile, Palestinian politicians and Muslim clerics demanded that Israel restore the situation at the shrine in Jerusalem’s Old City to what it was before July 14. On that day, three Arab gunmen opened fire from the shrine at Israeli police guards, killing two before being shot dead.
Metal detectors removed
In response, Israel closed the shrine for two days for weapons searches and installed the metal detectors. The decision quickly triggered Muslim protests amid allegations that Israel was trying to expand its control at the site under the guise of security – a claim Israel has denied.
On Tuesday, hours after Israel removed the metal detectors, Muslim leaders said a technical committee would check the area in and around the compound carefully to see if Israel had made any unilateral changes during the time the shrine stood empty.
Protests would continue until the check was completed, they said.
By Tuesday evening, thousands of worshippers prayed at the Old City’s Lion’s Gate, one of the main flash points in recent days. They knelt on prayer rugs arranged in neat rows on the asphalt as Israeli riot police lined up nearby.
After the prayers, many in the crowd chanted, “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” as they raised their right index finger to the sky in a sign of religious fervour.
Khalil Abu Arafeh, a 67-year-old retiree, said he and the others would follow the lead of the Muslim clergy. “We will not go. We will keep praying here,” he said, alleging Israel hadn’t removed all of the new security measures.
Israeli police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said some cameras remained “as part of the security measures to prevent terror attacks” in and around the Old City.
The Israeli daily Haaretz said the security Cabinet had decided to remove the metal detectors but leave in place the newly installed cameras.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said security co-ordination between his forces and Israeli troops in the West Bank would remain on hold until Israel has restored the situation at the shrine to what it was before July 14.
He had announced last week that he was freezing all ties with Israel until the metal detectors were down.
In the past two days, the crisis over the shrine had been closely linked to a parallel drama – a deadly shooting at the Israeli Embassy in Jordan.
The Sunday shooting, in which an Israeli guard killed two Jordanians after one attacked him with a screwdriver, had briefly led to a diplomatic stand-off.
Jordan initially said the guard could only leave after an investigation, but eventually let him go. Embassy staff, including the guard, returned to Israel late on Monday, after a phone call between Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Jordan also serves as Muslim custodian of the Jerusalem shrine, and the sequence of events – return of the embassy staff followed by the removal of the metal detectors – suggested a broader deal had been struck.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi denied this, saying that “there’s no bargain here”. Safadi defended the government’s handling of the embassy shooting, saying it had followed routine procedures as in any criminal case.
There was widespread anger in Jordan over the shooting, given the unpopularity of its peace deal with Israel.
An acrimonious session of Jordan’s parliament was cut short as lawmakers walked out in protest after the interior minister presented the initial findings of the incident at the embassy.
One of the victims, the 16-year-old who had attacked the Israeli with a screwdriver, was buried on Tuesday in Amman. More than 2 000 mourners joined his funeral procession, and they chanted slogans in support of the Jerusalem shrine and portrayed him as a “martyr” who had defended Muslim rights.