JERUSALEM, July 20, (Agencies): Israelis and Palestinians dug in over new security measures at a contested Jerusalem shrine after a deadly attack there, as international efforts were underway to try and stave off a major conflagration after Muslim clerics called for mass protests at the site on Friday.
Israel’s public security minister insisted Thursday that the metal detectors were essential to maintaining security, while Palestinians and Muslim religious leaders called for mass protests in the city if they are not removed.
Gilad Erdan told Israel’s Army Radio that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will rule on the issue later in the day after he holds security consultations upon his return from a working visit to Europe. The Israeli security services are reportedly divided over what to do given the rising tensions surrounding the site. But Erdan rejected Arab accusations that new Israeli measures were an attempt to expand control over the site and insisted they were necessary to carry out proper security checks.
“The Israeli police needs these metal detectors so the security checks can give a proper response to the security considerations,” he said. “I assume there are contacts internationally to try to calm the situation, but in my eyes there is no reason why the situation should not be calm.”
Israeli security forces are on high alert ahead of Friday, the highlight of the Muslim religious week, when tens of thousands of Muslims typically attend prayers in the walled compound in Jerusalem’s Old City. Muslim leaders have called for mass protests if the metal detectors are not moved before then.
Conflicts over the holy site — known as the Temple Mount to Jews and Noble Sanctuary to Muslims — have repeatedly triggered Israeli-Palestinian confrontations. Three Arab gunmen launched an attack from there last week, killing two Israeli policemen at a gate to the Muslim-administered compound.
In response, Israel began installing metal detectors — a security measure it said is used routinely at holy sites around the world.
Hamas called the initial closure a “religious war” and called on followers to attack Israelis.
Muslim clerics have been urging the faithful to skip prayers in neighborhood mosques on Friday and converge on the shrine, in an attempt to draw larger crowds. Worshippers have been asked this week to pray in the streets rather than submit to the new security procedures.
Netanyahu, who is in Hungary, held a pair of urgent phone conversations with his security chiefs Wednesday and appears to be under intense international pressure to back down.
Netanyahu said Israel is in close contact with Jordan, the traditional Muslim custodian of the shrine, to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. Jordan’s ruling Hashemite dynasty, with ancestry said to go back to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), derives much of its legitimacy from custodianship over the shrine. The White House has also called for tensions to be reduced.
The site remained quiet Thursday and Azzam Khatib, the director of the site’s Muslim administration, or Waqf, said he was hopeful an arrangement could be found before the Friday prayers.
“We will never ever accept any changes in the mosque, and Israel has to put an end to this crisis by removing the metal detectors,” he said. Jerusalem resident Ruben Abu Shamsi said the status of the gates posed a “borderline” for tragedy. “I hope the Israeli government will be so wise to avoid the violence,” he said at the site.
Also on Thursday, the Israeli military said it shot and killed a 26-year-old Palestinian attacker who tried to stab soldiers at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Hebron.
In the past two years, Palestinians have killed 45 Israelis, two visiting Americans and a British tourist in stabbings, shootings and car-ramming attacks. During that period, Israeli forces have killed more than 255 Palestinians, most of them said by Israel to be attackers while others were killed in clashes with Israeli forces.
The White House is urging Israel and Jordan to help reduce tension on the Temple Mount, the center of a dispute with Palestinians over access to a religious site in annexed east Jerusalem. The United States “is very concerned about tensions surrounding the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif, a site holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians,” the White House said in a statement late Wednesday.
It “calls upon the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to make a good faith effort to reduce tensions and to find a solution that assures public safety and the security of the site and maintains the status quo.”
The brief statement added that the United States “will continue to closely monitor the developments.”
An international conference on supporting Jerusalem kicked off in the Azerbaijani capital Baku on Thursday; organized by the United Nations (UN) and Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
The conference will discuss the situation in Jerusalem and means to provide political and economic support, Azerbaijan State News Agency AZERTAC said.
The conference will also discuss issues related to livelihood in Jerusalem under the Israeli occupation, expansion of settlements, challenges facing Palestinians in East Jerusalem, as well as the policy of house demolitions and forced deportation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is debating whether to remove new metal detectors at the centre of a dispute with Palestinians over access to a religious site in annexed east Jerusalem, Israeli media said Wednesday.
The reports came as thousands of Muslim worshippers prayed for a fourth night in a row outside the Haram al-Sharif compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, rather than enter through the metal detectors.
After the prayers, the Palestinians staged a protest against the enhanced security measures, chanting they were ready “to sacrifice ourselves for Al-Aqsa (mosque) with our soul and our blood”, as Israeli border guards looked on.
Fresh clashes broke out on Wednesday near the Palestinian refugee camp of Shuafat in east Jerusalem, but without any immediate reports of casualties.
Netanyahu, who is on a visit to Hungary, was consulting with security aides on whether to remove the metal detectors ahead of Friday’s weekly prayers, which normally draw more than 30,000 worshippers to the compound.
Former police chiefs, quoted in the media reports, have warned that efforts to ensure such a large gathering passes through the metals detectors would trigger major unrest.
Protests and scuffles between demonstrators and Israeli police have erupted outside the holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City on previous nights.
Last Friday, three Arab Israelis opened fire on Israeli police, killing two officers, before fleeing to the compound where security forces shot them dead.
Israel sealed off the site in the aftermath of the attack, saying the closure was necessary to carry out security checks.
The site reopened on Sunday, but with metal detectors at entrances, prompting the Palestinian boycott over alleged Israeli efforts to expand their control over the sensitive site.