The decision by the Israel Police and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to close the Temple Mount compound to Muslim prayer, and restrict access to parts of the Old City, seemed logical and reasonable in the immediate aftermath of Friday’s deadly attack there.
There was a clear imperative to prevent further attacks and disturbances, and a consequent need to isolate the most incendiary place in the Middle East and to carry out security checks to ensure no more weaponry was hidden there.
However, as the hours have passed, and the third holiest place in Islam has remained closed, the security considerations are reversing: The danger of escalated violence because of the closure of the compound, home to al-Aqsa Mosque, is growing, while the security reasons for keeping it closed are diminishing.
The security checks have been carried out. And new security arrangements can be instituted at any time, including with the compound open.
At the same time, the anger of the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim publics is growing by the hour. The anger is readily discerned even in East Jerusalem, where young drivers are substituting Arabic and even Hebrew pop music with intifada songs played at high volume. Saturday’s press conference by the mufti of Jerusalem, calling for the protection of Jerusalem and protesting Israel’s actions, was also an extraordinary event.
So, too, the return of Israel to the top of the headlines on Arabic satellite TV stations. Arabic satellite TV had previously been preoccupied with the crisis in the Gulf surrounding Qatar, with Israel barely meriting a mention. Now the closure of the Temple Mount is at center stage — less because of the terror attack, and more because of the closure of al-Aqsa Mosque to worshippers.
The decision to close the compound was taken by Jerusalem Police Chief Yoram Halevi, with the approval of Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, Public Security Minister Erdan, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Shin Bet security agency also backed the move — certainly as regards closing the compound on Friday.
The aim was not solely security-related. It was also to convey a message to the Palestinian and Muslim public that a red line had been crossed with the use of live fire at the holy site. The message was also intended for the Druze community, two of whose members, police officers Haiel Sitawe, 30 and Kamil Shnaan, 22, were shot dead by the Arab-Israeli attackers. Israel was indicating its solidarity with them, and its refusal to let the incident easily pass.
Many in the Muslim community do indeed recognize that bringing weaponry to the Temple Mount, and using it, is dangerous and unacceptable. The problem is that the longer the Mount remains closed, the more the Palestinian and Arab public focus less on that unacceptable use of weapons at the Al-Aqsa Compound, and more on the closure.
The Jerusalem Waqf has been saying that it has “lost control” at Al-Aqsa, and tensions are rising. There is a similar tone to the messages now coming from Arab countries, with Jordan at the forefront of the rising hostility.
Jordan acted quickly, and unjustifiably, on Friday to demand that Israel reopen the compound. It would have been better had Jordan, which enjoys profound diplomatic, security, and intelligence cooperation with Israel, taken a moment’s pause before issuing its criticisms of Israel regarding the Temple Mount.
But the escalating anger should not be ignored. Jordan’s Islamic Movement was on Saturday gearing up for a protest march against the closure of Al-Aqsa. The Jordanian minister responsible for the Waqf, Wael Arabiyat, warned Saturday of the dangers of keeping al-Aqsa closed.
Anger is not limited to Jordan. In Gulf states that have lately warmed their ties to Israel somewhat, religious leaders — not particularly extreme ones — are attacking Israel for closing the Mount.
It may be preferable for the Israel Police, and Israel’s other decision-makers, to quickly finish their security activities at the Mount, and to renew the entrance of Muslim worshippers — before the closure riles up a wider public that, thus far, has preferred to stay quietly at home.