JERUSALEM: Israel removed metal detectors from a highly sensitive Jerusalem holy site yesterday after their installation triggered deadly violence, but Muslim worshippers suspicious over what would come next kept up a boycott. Israel's move came in the face of intensive international diplomacy seeking to prevent the dispute over the Haram Al-Sharif mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, from sparking wider Palestinian unrest.
The government said it would introduce subtler measures instead to secure the compound housing the revered Al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock, following a July 14 deadly attack on Israeli police nearby. A work crew removed the metal detectors from one entrance to the compound early yesterday, and cameras installed on overhead scaffolding in recent days were also gone. But suspicions over what the new measures would entail resulted in the boycott continuing.
Several hundred worshippers prayed outside the gates in the streets in the summer heat, as they have done since the metal detectors were installed more than a week ago. "What we want and what we demand is for everything to return how it was before July 14," said Mohammed Hijazi, who came several days ago from Acre in northern Israel to join the protests. "When that happens we are ready to return to enter the Al-Aqsa mosque to pray to God Almighty."
Israel's security cabinet announced the decision to remove the detectors early yesterday. They decided "to change the inspection with metal detectors to a security inspection based on advanced technologies and other means," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said. Details of the advanced technologies envisaged were not immediately clear. A statement from the Waqf, the Islamic endowments organization which administers the compound, said there should be "no entry into Al-Aqsa mosque until after an assessment by a Waqf technical committee and the return of the situation to how it was before the 14th of this month".
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged all Muslims to visit Jerusalem to protect the holy places. "Anyone who has the opportunity should visit Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa mosque," Erdogan said in Ankara. "Come, let's all protect Jerusalem." Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who froze contacts with Israel over the dispute last week, was expected to make a statement later.
Israel installed metal detectors at entrances to the compound after the July 14 attack nearby killed two policemen. Palestinians viewed the new security measures as Israel asserting further control over the site and refused to enter the compound. Israeli authorities said the detectors were needed because the attackers smuggled guns into the compound and emerged from it to shoot the officers.
The decision to remove the detectors followed talks between Netanyahu and Jordan's King Abdullah II, who demanded that they be taken away. Jordan is the official custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem and is one of only two Arab governments to have signed a peace treaty with Israel. It also came after one of US President Donald Trump's top aides, Jason Greenblatt, arrived in Israel for talks on the crisis and with UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov warning of the risks of escalation.
A separate diplomatic standoff between Israel and Jordan may have helped push negotiations on the metal detectors along. On Sunday night in Amman, an Israeli embassy security guard shot dead a Jordanian who attacked him with a screwdriver, according to Israeli officials. A second Jordanian was also killed, apparently by accident. Israel had insisted the security guard had diplomatic immunity and rejected Jordanian demands to question him.
But on Monday night, the guard and other diplomats arrived home after a deal also involving the mosque compound. "Amman authorized the Israeli diplomat to leave the country after hearing his account of the incident... and after reaching an understanding with the (Israeli) government on Al-Aqsa," a Jordanian government source said.
Yesterday, thousands of Jordanians chanted "Death to Israel" at the funeral of the 17-year-old said to have attacked the guard. Mourners accompanied Mohammed Jawawdeh's coffin from Wihdat city, home to a large Palestinian refugee camp. "Mohammed's blood did not flow in vain," Jawawdeh's uncle Sami said, arguing it paved the way for Israel's removal of the metal detectors.
Friday's main weekly Muslim prayers in Jerusalem - which typically draw thousands to Al-Aqsa - had brought the dispute to a boil. Clashes erupted between Israeli security forces and Palestinians around the Old City, elsewhere in annexed east Jerusalem and in the occupied West Bank, leaving three Palestinians dead. They continued on Saturday, leaving two more Palestinians dead. Friday evening also saw a Palestinian break into a home in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank during a Sabbath dinner and stab four Israelis, killing three.
The mosque compound has served as a rallying cry for Palestinians. In 2000, a visit to it by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon helped ignite the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising. The compound lies in east Jerusalem, seized by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed in a move never recognized by the international community. Considered the third-holiest site in Islam, it is the most sacred for Jews. - AFP