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The deadly crisis over Jerusalem's holy site isn't over just yet

by Alex Kane
Jul 25 2017, 2:43pm

Palestinian protests raged into Monday night in Jerusalem despite Israel’s surprise announcement that metal detectors recently installed outside Al-Aqsa Mosque would be immediately removed, a decision that dismayed supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and relieved those who’d warned of a full-blown regional conflict if they remained in place.

The Israeli security cabinet’s sudden reversal came on the heels of an outbreak of killings and violence over the weekend that left four Palestinians and three Israelis dead and had begun to spread beyond Israel and into Jordan, Israel’s close Arab ally.

But security analysts and regional policy experts are skeptical that Netanyahu’s latest security proposal, which includes beefed-up Israeli forces in Jerusalem’s Old City and the introduction of sophisticated surveillance cameras, is enough to quell further violence and protests spurred by Israel’s expanded role over Jerusalem’s holiest site.

Fighting for control

“The security problem is because the Palestinians are not ready to agree that Israel will have more control over people entering the compound,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu and the former head of Israel’s National Security Council.

Netanyahu’s change of heart failed to convince Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who said he would continue a freeze contacts with Israel, though it’s unlikely the freeze extends to security coordination between the Israeli army and Palestinian security forces.

Amidror said that despite the volatility sparked by changes to security arrangements at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, also known as the Temple Mount to Jews, Israel had to take action after Palestinian militants smuggled weapons into the mosque and killed two Israeli policemen on July 14. That attack led to the erecting of metal detectors, which in turn set off a large wave of Palestinian protests in Jerusalem that were met with deadly Israeli firepower. Last week’s flare-up of violence echoed the crisis of summer 2014, when unrest in the West Bank and Jerusalem quickly transformed into a bloody war that killed over 2,100 Palestinians and 73 Israelis.

“The status quo was changed by the other side, not us. Someone from the other side killed people on the holiest place for Jews. We have to prevent this for the future,” said Amidror.

Palestinians have a decidedly different view on the matter and see the metal detectors as a step toward Israel taking greater control of a site that has remained under Islamic control, and is symbolic of aspirations for a future Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. They have come out against the security cabinet’s $28 million plan to increase police presence in Jerusalem’s Old City and set up “security measures based on advanced technologies.” Muslim leaders have not called off a boycott of entering Al-Aqsa first started because of the metal detectors, while Palestinians continue to pray on the streets of Jerusalem. And the Jordanian-run Waqf, the Islamic group that administers the holy site, said in a Tuesday statement that they “reject” the proposed measures.

“They’re not going to go home”

“Religious leaders are saying they don’t want any type of mechanism on Al-Aqsa. This is not Israeli territory. If they want to put surveillance, they can put it outside their own synagogues, but Palestinians don’t want to be further surveilled on their own land,” said Diana Buttu, a Ramallah-based political analyst and former adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “They’re not going to go home.”

Ordinary Palestinians in East Jerusalem and their religious leaders are driving the action on the ground — a striking development that complicates efforts to return calm to Jerusalem, said Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group who focuses on Jerusalem. Unlike in West Bank cities, where the Palestinian Authority holds sway by coordinating with the Israeli army over security, there is no Palestinian leadership closely coordinating with Israel on this matter.

“Their sense is they have a victory in their hands — a victory in a sea of defeats. They are looking to leverage their political victories, and this means more escalation around Al Aqsa and the Temple Mount.”

“The new situation is local Jerusalem leaders are in power, and the situation is volatile,” said Zalzberg. “Their sense is they have a victory in their hands — a victory in a sea of defeats. They are looking to leverage their political victories, and this means more escalation around Al Aqsa and the Temple Mount.”

That new style of leadership also means trouble for Jordan. Since 1967, when Israel conquered and then occupied the entirety of Jerusalem, the Waqf has run the holy site, while Israel took responsibility for security outside of it.

On Monday night, Israel and Jordan seemed to have struck a deal that solved both countries’ problems: The Israeli security guard who killed two after a Jordanian stabbed him at the Israeli Embassy in Amman traveled back to Israel after being questioned by Jordanian police, while Jordan won the removal of metal detectors outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

But the refusal by local Palestinian leaders to halt their protests poses a challenge to the Jordanian monarchy.

“The Jordanian king is unable to impose his will upon [Palestinians],” said Zalzberg. “If the decision is acceptable to them, they will cooperate; if it is not acceptable, [the king] cannot coerce them into it.”

Alex Kane is a journalist focusing on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties.