JERUSALEM – Israel has removed more security installations from the entrance to a sensitive Jerusalem holy site after protests and deadly unrest in recent days, prompting Palestinian celebrations early Thursday.
A tense standoff has been underway between Israel and Muslim worshippers at the holy site despite the removal of metal detectors on Tuesday, with concerns of major unrest later this week if no resolution is found.
Newly installed railings and scaffolding where cameras were previously mounted have now also been removed from at least one main entrance to the Haram al-Sharif compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, an AFP journalist saw early Thursday.
It was unclear whether Muslim authorities would now grant approval for worshippers to re-enter the site, which houses the revered Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
Palestinians began to gather at the entrance to celebrate in the early hours of Thursday, with whistling and constant horns from cars.
Young men set of firecrackers as Israeli forces watched closely.
Firas Abasi said he felt like crying over the “victory”.
“For 12 days no one has slept, no one has done anything except the Al-Aqsa mosque,” he said.
Israel installed the new security measures after an attack nearby that killed two policemen on July 14.
Muslims have refused to enter the site and have prayed in the streets outside for more than a week after Israel installed the new security measures there.
Palestinians view the move as Israel asserting further control over the site.
Israeli authorities said the metal detectors were needed because the July 14 attackers smuggled guns into the site and emerged from it to attack the officers.
Protests and deadly unrest have erupted in the days since the measures were installed, with clashes breaking out around the compound in Jerusalem’s Old City and in the occupied West Bank, leaving five Palestinians dead.
A Palestinian also broke into a home in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank last week and stabbed four Israelis, killing three.
There have been concerns that Friday’s main weekly Muslim prayers — which typically draw thousands to Al-Aqsa — will lead to serious clashes between protesters and Israeli security forces.
Following intensive international diplomacy and warnings of the potential of wider unrest, Israel removed the metal detectors early on Tuesday.
Cameras installed after the attack on the police were also removed.
But Israeli officials said they were to be replaced with “advanced technologies” — widely believed to be smart cameras with facial recognition technology.
The remaining installations and suspicions over what new measures Israel is planning led Palestinian and Muslim leaders to continue to call for a boycott of the site, and worshippers have so far heeded their call.
Separately late Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he wanted to expel Qatari broadcaster Al-Jazeera from Israel because it “continues to incite violence around the Temple Mount.”
Al-Jazeera had not immediately commented.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who announced a freeze on contacts with Israel last week over the dispute, said Tuesday the suspension would continue until the site was returned to the way it was before the crisis began.
Israel’s decision to remove the metal detectors came after Netanyahu held talks with Jordanian King Abdullah II, who had demanded their removal.
In a telephone call Wednesday, Abdullah and Abbas “stressed the importance of continuing coordination to bring the situation back to what it was before the outbreak of the crisis and ensure the historical and legal status of the Holy Mosque is respected”, Jordan’s Petra news agency reported.
A top aide to US President Donald Trump earlier this week held talks in Jerusalem on the crisis.
The clock has been ticking, with last week’s Friday prayers having brought the situation to a boil.
Concerned with the potential for unrest, Israel barred men under 50 from entering Jerusalem’s Old City for prayers last Friday.
Protests and clashes erupted later in the day. The deadly stabbings of three Israelis came the same day.
Deal with Jordan
A diplomatic standoff between Israel and Jordan may have helped negotiations on the metal detectors.
On Sunday night in Amman, an Israeli embassy security guard shot dead a Jordanian who attacked him with a screwdriver, Israeli officials said.
A second Jordanian was also killed, apparently by accident.
Israel insisted the guard had diplomatic immunity and rejected Jordanian demands to question him.
The guard and other diplomats arrived home Monday after a deal that a Jordanian government source said also involved the mosque compound.
Jordan is the official custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.
The compound is in east Jerusalem, seized by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.
The third-holiest site for Muslims and the most sacred for Jews, it is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has served as a rallying cry for Palestinians.
In 2000, then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit there helped ignite the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising. – AFP