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Israel changes tack on Temple Mount security

July 25, 2017

Israel has removed metal detectors from the Temple Mount site in Jerusalem. The death toll in the crisis continues to grow as the conflict takes on an increasingly religious dimension that could be difficult to control.

Israel verschärfte Sicherheitsvorkehrungen am Tempelberg in Jerusalem
Image: picture-alliance/newscom/D. Hill

Israel's security cabinet early on Tuesday decided to remove metal detectors at the entrance to a sensitive Jerusalem holy site, after the new security measures unleashed a deadly round of unrest.

A statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said it would replace the metal detectors with "a security inspection based on advanced technologies and other means."  

It was unclear when the metal detectors would be removed or what advanced technologies were being planned.  Local media reported earlier that the government was considering facial recognition cameras at the entrance to the holy site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and as Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) to Muslims.

Karte Jerusalem Altstadt Tempelberg ENG

A rock and a hard place?

If cameras with facial recognition were installed, the idea goes, it would be possible to dismantle the metal detectors put in place by the Israeli security authorities in the foreseeable future. By doing so, the conflict, which has already claimed several lives, could possibly be defused.

The installation of the metal detectors has put the government in a quandary. "If Israel removes the metal detectors, it will be seen as caving into Palestinian pressure, and even worse, to terror," wrote Judy Maltz, of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The Palestinians, on the other hand, refuse to go through the machines out of principle. In other words: Neither side is giving in. All those involved, according to Maltz, are looking for a way to save face.

Protest clashes near Ramallah
Israeli forces have clashed violenty with Palestinian protesters in recent daysImage: Reuters/M. Torokman

Religious provocation

However, using facial recognition cameras in lieu of metal detectors could address some concerns among Palestinians: they do not seem as intimidating or imposing as being forced to walk through metal detectors. Palestinians are regularly subjected to such treatment at countless checkpoints and border crossings. They are viewed as instruments of Israeli occupation.

"What is happening is the beginning of the judaization of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which has been planned since the founding of Israel in 1948," wrote the popular Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds. For this reason the newspaper sees a connection between the current incidents and the visit to the Temple Mount by former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in September 2000 - a move viewed by many Palestinians as a religious provocation.

Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar highlighted another religious aspect of the latest crisis. "Sheikh Raed Salah, the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, is directly involved in the incitement" of the terrorist attack against the two policemen on the Temple Mount, Eldar wrote in online news outlet Al Monitor. The three Arab Israeli attackers were killed by security forces. 

Salah, an Israeli citizen of Palestinian origin, is accused of cracking down on his opponents in his hometown of Umm al-Fahm, where he has held the post of mayor several times. One anonymous resident of Umm al-Fahm told Al Monitor's Eldar that ever since the attack on the Temple Mount, "there is a sense of terror here toward anyone who speaks critically of the Islamic Movement."

Witnesses said that the three attackers had regularly prayed in the mosque there, where Salah called for the "defense" of the Al-Aqsa mosque.

Al-Aqsa solidarity protest in Yemen
Protesters as far away as war-torn Yemen took to the streets in solidarity with the Al-Aqsa mosqueImage: Reuters/K. Abdullah

Political dimension

Israel's minister for public security, Gilad Erdan, has refuted the notion that the installation of metal detectors at the Temple Mount has religious undertones. The metal detectors have "nothing sacred" about them, he argued on Israeli radio, "but at a moment when the police don't have another effective alternative to prevent a repeat of incidents as occurred on the Temple Mount, the metal detectors will not be removed."

The Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayam, published in Ramallah, argued that the crisis is not religious, but rather political. "Metal detectors are not the core of the problem," the newspaper wrote. "It is rather that Israel is trying to persuade the world that this is a pure religious conflict. The danger is that the political dimension of the conflict is undermined - and with it also the rights of Palestinians to self-determination and independence and above all to form a state of their own."

Reactions from abroad

The crisis has led to an uproar in other parts of the world. The chairman of the Arab League, Ahmed Abul Gheit, accused Israel of playing "with fire" by installing metal detectors. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the measures as insulting to the Islamic world.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East