Amid a tense security standoff in and around Jerusalem in anticipation of violent riots by Muslim worshipers, the Israel Police said Friday morning that the decision to keep metal detectors at the Temple Mount compound, a key point of contention, was made by the security cabinet and not law enforcement officials as previously reported.
According to a statement released by a police spokesperson, the metal detectors will remain in place “according to a decision of the political echelon.”
Police stressed however that they had been given authority to decide on the level of enforcement “according to security assessments.” For example, the statement noted, officers stationed at checkpoints have jurisdiction to let individuals or groups pass through without being checked.
The metal detectors were installed following a terror attack last Friday at the Temple Mount that saw three Arab Israeli gunmen shoot and kill two Israeli police officers.
Following the deadly attack, Israel initially closed the site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, as it searched for more weapons. The compound, which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine, was reopened Sunday with metal detectors installed, a step Palestinians protested as a change to the longstanding status quo. Israel denied this and noted that those who enter the Western Wall plaza below have long been required to pass through metal detectors.
The Temple Mount is the holiest place to Jews as the site of the biblical temples.
Earlier Friday police said they had intelligence that said “extremist elements” intended “to cause violent disruptions to the public order, and thereby to threaten the public peace, including the [safety] of those coming to pray at the holy sites and other residents of the area.”
A statement released earlier by the Prime Minister’s Office said that the high-level security cabinet voted early Friday to grant the Israel Police the authority to decide which security measures would be implemented at the holy site.
“The cabinet has authorized the Israel Police to make any decision in order to ensure free access to the holy sites while upholding security and public order,” read the statement after some four hours of late-night consultations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ministers and security chiefs.
The decision drew criticism from opposition leaders. Avi Gabbay, newly elected leader of the Labor Party, criticized the lack of a clear decision by the political echelon.
“A cabinet which holds discussions on serious political and security issues must make a decision, not pass responsibility on to the police,” Gabbay tweeted. “I support the security forces and believe they will rise to the challenge,” he added.
Following the consultations, police have continued the operation of the metal detectors and restricted entry to young men, allowing only those over 50 or women of any age to enter the Old City.
In addition, dozens of makeshift checkpoints have been set up in and around the Old City and police patrols have been bolstered in the alleyways and on paths taken by Jewish and Muslim worshipers to the Temple Mount and Western Wall.
Checkpoints at the entrances to Jerusalem have also been bolstered and Palestinian media sources are reporting a number of buses bringing worshipers to Jerusalem being turned away by the IDF. Some reports said more than 30 buses were stopped from entering the city.
Friday prayers on the Muslim holy day are the busiest time in the week at the Temple Mount, with tens of thousands expected to arrive at the compound. The Palestinian terror group Hamas called for mass protests on Friday against the increased security measures.
Muslim clerics have also been urging the faithful to skip prayers in neighborhood mosques on Friday and converge on the shrine, in an attempt to draw larger crowds. Worshipers have been asked this week to pray in the streets rather than submit to the new security procedures.
Palestinian media reported that several key East Jerusalem figures were arrested overnight on suspicion of encouraging violent protests. Among the ten or so said to be under arrest were Fatah’s secretary-general in Jerusalem Adnan Ghaith and the head of the city’s Palestinian Prisoners’ Families Committee Amjad Abu Assab.
Police could not immediately confirm the news of the arrests.
Over 3,000 police officers are deployed in the Old City area, police have said.
In addition to the heavily bolstered police presence, the army announced Thursday that five battalions would be made available to deal with violence in and around the capital.
The IDF also canceled all leave over the weekend, keeping all units at full strength in anticipation of possible violence in the West Bank.
Palestinian officials have denounced the increased security at the site as a change in the delicate status quo that governs the site. Israel has denied this, saying the new measures were necessitated by last Friday’s attack, in which three Arab-Israelis emerged armed from the compound and shot dead two Israeli police officers stationed just outside.
On Thursday, Israel police released video footage showing the weapons being smuggled onto the Mount.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.