The Israeli decision to set up comprehensive security inspections and walk-through metal detectors at the entrances to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem may well seem reasonable and justified, in light of the deadly terror attack last Friday near the compound.
But any attempt to apply “justice” or “reason” to the holy site is irrelevant, and the measure has brought on a rare consensus of resistance among the Palestinians, as well as in the Arab and Muslim world.
Israel insists it is not seeking to change the status quo or to create new facts on the ground on the Temple Mount – only to prevent further attacks. Three Arab-Israelis shot dead two Israel Police officers just outside the compound on Friday, using guns that had been smuggled into the religious site. Hence the upgraded security measures. However, it seems outraged Muslims are hardly interested in Israel’s objective security needs at this point.
The Muslim insistence on removing the detectors is perceived in Israel as absurd, but Israelis naturally do not tend to see the Muslim point of view. In the Palestinian and Arab spheres, the installation of the metal detector gates at the entrance to the Temple Mount is seen as flagrant overreach by Israel — a blatant attempt to change the existing state of affairs and even, in the minds of some Muslims, a precursor to a takeover of the compound.
Still, a solution may be at hand. Numerous sources, both Israeli and Palestinian, have indicated that intensive talks between the Israeli and Jordanian leaderships, with American support, have produced a scheme that may be acceptable to all sides: According to the reported proposal, the walk-through detectors will be removed and selective screening will be held for worshipers deemed suspicious — with police using handheld wands similar to those used at the entrances to some Israeli shopping malls.
But the question of why the detectors’ presence has been met with such animus by Muslims is a valid one, especially considering the fact that such consensus among rival religious and political factions — including the Jordanian Waqf, which administers the site, and the Palestinian clergy — is exceedingly rare.
On Wednesday Jerusalem’s entire Muslim leadership called for the closure of all mosques throughout the city Friday and for all Muslims to converge toward the site, which will undoubtedly lead to an extraordinarily volatile situation.
Two of the clerics responsible for that call were the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, and the former mufti, Sheikh Ekrima Sabri. Both have suffered a decline in their standing in the eyes of the Palestinian public recently, and both could potentially regain some lost glory through their confrontational approach.
And if top religious leaders declare the Al-Aqsa Mosque under attack, no Palestinians would dare say differently, lest they be deemed traitors and collaborators.
Palestinian political leadership is also contributing its share to fanning the flames, with PA President Mahmoud Abbas cutting short his trip to China in light of the “Al-Aqsa crisis” and members of Fatah mobilizing to encourage street-level resistance.
However, this all has less to do with any actual outrage than with Fatah’s need to give rival faction Hamas a political fight for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian public.
As for Israel — its security organizations are divided on the correct course of action.
The Israel Police, which was behind the original decision, is of course opposed to the removal of the detectors. Meanwhile the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, does not see them as particularly necessary.
True, the detectors’ removal would be a victory for the extreme, threatening voices that are now trying to force Israel’s hand. It’s also true that pilgrims visiting Mecca’s Kaaba compound in Saudi Arabia undergo security screenings. And yes, the Temple Mount is under Israeli sovereignty and subject to its security decisions.
And yet a repeat of the last major conflagration at the Mount – the Western Wall Tunnel riots of 1996, when 17 Israelis and 100 Palestinians were killed in intense fighting — won’t do anyone any good.
And it must be admitted that the security benefits of the much-contested metal detectors are not, in the end, very significant. Security can and should be achieved through alternative means. And if a Muslim truly wanted to carry out another attack on the Mount, he could probably circumvent inspection at the detectors – there are ways to do so.
It also remains unclear whether Israel has considered fully the ramifications should the metal detectors become a permanent fixture of each and every one of the entrances to the Temple Mount. Guarding the gates from vandalism 24/7 will place a heavy burden on Jerusalem’s police force. It will also raise a plethora of new problems: How will screenings be held on Fridays, when tens of thousands of people converge on the scene (hundreds of thousands during Ramadan)? Many Jerusalem Muslims bring the bodies of the deceased to Al-Aqsa before burial. Will police be inspecting bodies? How about the mourners escorting them — will they need to submit to inspection as well?
In the end Israel will probably need to be the responsible adult in the room in this matter, as there don’t seem to be many of those on the Palestinian side at the moment.
But in Israel as well, it is difficult to separate security considerations from politics: Just like Muslims, Jews are extremely sensitive in matters relating to the Temple Mount. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows that many on the right would be all too happy to skewer him for seemingly folding when it comes to the spot most sacred to the Jewish people. It is thus not at all certain that his decision will be purely professional.
Ultimately it seems that if Israel wishes to prevent a major escalation, widespread confrontations and a deterioration in Israeli-Jordanian relations, it should agree to remove the detectors, at least for now. The old Israeli adage that on the road it is better to be smart than to be right is doubly true here.
There is still some time before Friday morning, and hopefully the sides will find a way to get off their high horses. If Netanyahu insists on retaining the detectors, we are undoubtedly in for a bumpy weekend.