Amid tensions, Temple Mount reopens for Muslim prayer

Amid tensions, Temple Mount reopens for Muslim prayer

Large police forces deploy around volatile holy site as visits, prayer gradually resume • Additional security cameras, metal detectors set up around complex on PM Netanyahu’s orders • U.S., EU condemn terror attack, urge caution, maintaining status quo.

Shlomo Cesana, Daniel Siryoti, Erez Linn, Efrat Forsher and Itsik Saban

Metal dedicators set up near one of the entrances to the Temple Mount |Photo credit: Oren Ben Hakoon
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday authorized the defense establishment to reopen the Temple Mount for Muslim prayer after the complex was shut down on Friday, following a terrorist attack near Lions’ Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The attack, the first ever shooting attack inside the holy site, claimed the lives of Israel Police Staff Sgt. Maj. Haiel Sitawe, 30, from Maghar in northern Israel, and Staff Sgt. Maj. Kamil Shnaan, 22, from Hurfeish. A third police officer sustained minor injuries.

The decision to reopen the volatile site followed a security situation assessment Netanyahu held on Saturday evening with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, Shin Bet security agency Director Nadav Argaman and Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai — the same panel that recommended cordoning off the area and canceling Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa mosque following the shooting.

 

The complex was open gradually on Sunday afternoon for worshippers, visitors and tourists. Sunday morning saw large security forces deploy around the site’s gates. On Netanyahu’s orders, additional security cameras and metal detectors were installed around the complex, to increase security. Police and Border Police officers stationed at the site were also equipped with handheld metal detectors.

Previous plans to install security cameras and metal detectors on the mount were shelved over diplomatic sensitivities.

Friday’s decision to close Al-Aqsa mosque for prayer was the first of its kind since the 1960s. Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League leveled harsh criticism at Israel over the move, but Netanyahu was quick to ensure all parties that the move meant to facilitate the investigation into the terrorist attack and that Israel will continue to spare no effort to observe and maintain the status quo on the volatile site.

The status quo facilitates Muslim prayer in Al-Aqsa mosque, but does not permit Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount for security reasons.

Jordan’s King Abdullah spoke with Netanyahu and condemned the attack, saying he rejects “all forms of violence, especially at holy sites,” the Petra news agency reported.

Nevertheless, Abdullah demanded Netanyahu reopen Al-Aqsa mosque, stressing “the need for all parties to avoid steps that could destabilize the area and lead to a security escalation,” the report said.

On Friday, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, the city’s highest Islamic authority, was detained for questioning on suspicion of incitement. He was released shortly thereafter.

Following the decision to temporarily close Al-Aqsa mosque to facilitate the terrorist attack’s investigation, Hussein called on Muslims to gather en masse at the holy site, and condemned what he called Israel’s “aggression.”

“Israel’s actions are in violation of international resolutions. We have lost control of Al-Aqsa mosque because of Israel’s aggressive measures,” he said.

Hussein and some 20 other Al-Aqsa officials arrived at the site on Sunday, less than an hour after the complex was reopened for prayer, and faced off with security forces, refusing to heed their orders to pass through the metal detectors.

Police officials expressed concern that the protest could escalate to violent riots.

‘No justification for attack’

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Friday condemned the shooting attack at Lions’ Gate and urged all parties involved to “act responsibly to avoid escalation.”

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Guterres welcomed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ swift condemnation of the attack and Netanyahu’s assurances that “the status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem will be respected.”

Guterres stressed that “the sanctity of religious sites should be respected as places for reflection, not violence.”

The EU denounced the attack as “not only a crime against people on duty, but also a profanation of [the] holy site. … There can be no justification for such a crime or any act of terrorism.”

A statement by Brussels said that “the EU calls on all leaders to condemn violence and all acts of terrorism when they occur, and to work towards restoring the dignity and safety of this holy site.”

U.K. Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt called the shooting “horrific.”

“I am saddened and appalled by this despicable act and offer my condolences to the victims and their families. The U.K. continues to stand with Israel against terrorism,” he said in a statement.

U.S. Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt condemned the attack, tweeting, “My family and I send thoughts and prayers to families of victims of today’s terror attack in Jerusalem. We must defeat all forms of terror!”

A statement by the White House said, “Yesterday, the Holy City of Jerusalem — which means ‘City of Peace’ — became a scene of terror. There must be zero tolerance for terrorism. It is incompatible with achieving peace and we must condemn it in the strongest terms, defeat it and eradicate it.”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, “The attack forced the government of Israel to temporarily close the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to conduct its investigation. Israel has assured the world that it has no intention to alter the status of this holy site, a decision which the United States applauds and welcomes.”

‘Attack could have been prevented’

A senior police official told Israel Hayom that had metal detectors been stationed at the gates leading to the Temple Mount’s compound, the attack could have been prevented.

Metal detectors were stationed on the mount following the 2000 riots that erupted after then-Opposition Leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, but they were removed soon after.

The recent string of terrorist attacks near Damascus Gate in the Old City has prompted Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh and Jerusalem District Police Commander Maj. Gen. Yoram Halevy to present Netanyahu with a new plan to bolster security in the area.

In 2014, following the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers and a series of terrorist attacks the police again recommended setting up metal detectors on the site to prevent smuggling weapons into the complex.

The plan, outlined by a team named by then-Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch recommended placing metal detectors in all nine gates through which visitors to the Temple Mount enter, as well as equipping security forces deployed in the area with handheld metal detectors.

The Jordan-run Islamic Waqf, the Islamic trust that controls and manages the current Islamic edifices on and around Al-Aqsa mosque adamantly opposed the move, and the police recommended to set up the metal detectors a few dozen yards from every gate.

The police’s 2014 recommendations noted that given the tensions on the Temple Mount and potential for rapid security deterioration, “there is a need to increase the means, measures and methods for securing the Temple Mount so as to create deterrence and prevent a possible attack.”

The team recommended installing metal detectors, as experience in Israel and worldwide has proven them to be highly effective in generating deterrence and preventing attacks.

The team determined that the plan’s benefits outweigh its disadvantages, as the use of metal detectors at the gates leading to the holy site would increase security, especially as they could be removed and deployed according to security needs.

Nevertheless, the plan was shelved, and currently security forces check those entering the compound only on the basis of suspicious behavior, without the assistance of electronic devices.

Moreover, metal-detecting gates are set up only at the entrances to the Western Wall and Mughrabi Gate, through which Jews and tourists ascend the Temple Mount.

Last month, Erdan presented a plan aimed at revolutionizing the security measures used across the Old City.

The plan includes the deployment of a sophisticated network of license plate capture cameras that use specialized software to identify and record license plates on still or moving vehicles; a network of “smart cameras” — closed-circuit TV cameras equipped with facial recognition software to identify suspects in real time; placing fortified security posts in strategic locations in the area; and setting up a lighting system to simulate daylight.