Palestinians return to worship at Al-Aqsa mosque

Many injured as Israeli forces try to control crowd after removing security measures

Palestinian Muslims bow in prayer inside the Haram al-Sharif compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, in the old city of Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock in the background. File photograph: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

Palestinian Muslims bow in prayer inside the Haram al-Sharif compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, in the old city of Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock in the background. File photograph: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

 

Thousands of Muslim worshippers rushed to pray at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque in chaotic scenes on Thursday after Israel backed down in the face of 10 days of often-violent unrest and removed security measures it had installed at the sacred site.

At least 37 Palestinians were injured as Israeli security forces used sound bombs to control crowds of worshippers. There was a surge once the last gate Muslims are allowed to use to enter Al-Aqsa was opened after a stand-off of several hours.

Israel’s removal of the security measures, including metal detectors and CCTV cameras, marked a significant climbdown by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. While Palestinians celebrated, political opponents accused him of weakness.

Mr Netanyahu’s decision followed days of diplomatic effort by the United Nations, the involvement of US president Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy and pressure from countries in the region, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The dispute began after Israel installed metal detectors at Muslim entrances to the Al-Aqsa compound, also known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, following the July 14th killing of two Israeli policemen by Arab gunmen who had concealed weapons inside the walled plaza.

The unannounced move provoked days of unrest, with violent clashes on the streets of East Jerusalem.

Israeli forces shot dead four Palestinians, and a Palestinian man stabbed and killed three Israelis in their home in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

For the past two weeks, most Muslims have refused to enter, instead praying in the streets around the Old City.

Earlier on Thursday, Muslim elders declared themselves satisfied that Israeli authorities had removed all the new security measures – mainly metal detectors and CCTV cameras – and reverted to the set-up before July 14th.

“The technical report showed that all obstacles the occupation [Israel] put outside Al-Aqsa mosque were removed,” said Abdel-Azeem Salhab, the head of the Waqf, the Jordanian-funded trust that oversees Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites.

“We praise this stand in the past two weeks outside Al-Aqsa and we want this stand to continue outside Al-Aqsa and now inside Al-Aqsa,” he said, urging worshippers to return to pray.

Palestinian political factions issued statements supporting the Waqf, which looked likely to help defuse the unrest. Before the announcement, factions had been calling for a “day of rage” on Friday, raising concerns about another round of violence.

Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 and has been custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem since 1924, said Israel’s removal of the extra security measures was an “essential step to calm the situation”.

Saudi Arabia said King Salman had been in contact with the US and other powers to try to dampen the tensions and had “stressed the need for the return of calm”. He called for respect for the sanctity of the compound.

Rare victory

Palestinian political factions were quick to highlight what they saw as a rare victory over Israel. A spokesman for Mr Netanyahu declined to comment, but right-wing leaders criticised the premier for what they regarded as weakness.

“Israel is emerging weakened from this crisis, to my regret,” said education minister Naftali Bennett, whose national-religious Jewish Home party is in Mr Netanyahu’s coalition and who is a potential challenger for the leadership.

“The truth must be stated. Instead of bolstering our sovereignty in Jerusalem, a message was relayed that our sovereignty can be shaken.”

Mr Netanyahu said the extra security was needed to ensure safety at the site, which is popular with tourists. But by taking the steps to bolster security, Israel was materially changing the sensitive status quo, which has governed movement and religious practice for decades.

The Noble Sanctuary contains Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam, and the golden Dome of the Rock. The area, which sits on a tree-lined marble plateau in the heart of the Old City, is the holiest place in Judaism, the location of two ancient temples, the last destroyed by the Romans.

Reuters