Worshipers protest metal detectors as Israel reopens Temple Mount
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Worshipers protest metal detectors as Israel reopens Temple Mount

Waqf officials hold prayer outside site to protest new security arrangements set up in wake of Friday's lethal terror attack; some 600 Muslims enter compound

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Muslim worshippers stage a prayer protest outside the Temple Mount compound against metal detectors that were set up at the entrance to the holy site after a terror attack two days prior, on July 16, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Muslim worshippers stage a prayer protest outside the Temple Mount compound against metal detectors that were set up at the entrance to the holy site after a terror attack two days prior, on July 16, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel partially reopened the Temple Mount complex on Sunday after a brutal terror attack two days earlier, allowing in only Jerusalem’s Muslim residents. A comparatively small number of worshipers actually entered the site, while others stayed outside in protest of new metal detectors set up at the entrances.

According to police, approximately 200 Muslims entered the Temple Mount as of 1:00 p.m., an hour after it opened on Sunday, a far cry from the thousands that were expected to visit the site. By 5 p.m., the number was up to 600.

The holy site had been closed since Friday, when three Arab Israeli terrorists opened fire at a group of police officers, killing two of them, using guns that had apparently been stashed earlier on the Temple Mount.

The closure was the first time Israel had shuttered the compound on a Friday, Islam’s holy day, in nearly 50 years.

At noon on Sunday, Israel reopened one of the entrances to the Mount to all Muslim residents of Jerusalem, regardless of age or gender. However, metal detectors were installed at the gate, which Israel had set up in the past but later removed, in order to improve security.

Waqf officials, who oversee the religious management of the Temple Mount, refused to enter the site and instigated a protest outside the entrance, with dozens of worshipers conducting their afternoon prayers next to the gate. “We will not accept security checks at Al-Aqsa… Don’t go through the gates,” one official shouted to the crowd outside the gate, who responded with cries of “Allahu Akbar.”

Police said the the Waqf officials were not required to pass through the sensors. Channel 2 reported that Waqf officials initially entered the compound by a side entrance, without being required to go through the metal detectors, but later came back out and instigated protests against the new arrangements.

No non-Muslim visitors were allowed to enter the site on Sunday.

Israeli officials noted that all entrants to the Western Wall Plaza and Western Wall, beneath the Temple Mount compound, have for many years been required to go through metal detectors.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who is responsible for police, said in a tweet that the Waqf officials’ protest was “opposition to the very existence of the metal detectors.”

The decision to install the detectors came Saturday night from the Prime Minister’s Office Saturday night, which is seeking more effective security arrangements at the compound. Officials had previously refrained from using them out of fear of protests from Jordan, which opposes any change to the delicate status quo at the site.

Mahmoud al-Aloul, deputy head of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, told Palestinian media on Sunday that posting metal detectors at the Temple Mount was “illegitimate,” and security would only be ensured at the site by preventing the entry of “settlers” and removing “Israeli soldiers” — a reference to Border Police officers stationed at the site — from the compound.

The Palestinian Authority’s official Wafa news outlet also reported on Sunday that Israel had banned several Waqf officials from going up to the Temple Mount. This could not be immediately confirmed by Israeli officials.

Over the weekend, multiple Waqf officials were arrested — mostly for inciting speech against Israel’s decision to close the Temple Mount — but were released after interrogation.

On Sunday morning, Israeli forces conducted a security sweep and began installing the detectors. Given the large number of worshipers expected to enter the site, the new measures could slow movement and spark tensions.

Israeli border policemen patrol in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 16, 2017. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Israeli border policemen patrol in Jerusalem’s Old City, on July 16, 2017. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Erdan said in an interview with Army Radio Sunday morning: “Right now, we can only screen [for firearms] at some of the gates, even if it’s only with a hand-held [detector], but we hope to place metal detection gates at all the entrances to the Mount and reach a point where everyone who enters gets checked,” he said.

After a Saturday night consultation with security officials, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a gradual reopening of the site to Muslim worshipers starting Sunday at noon.

An Israeli border policeman inspects the identification card of a Palestinian woman in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 16, 2017. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
An Israeli border policeman inspects the identification card of a Palestinian woman in Jerusalem’s Old City, on July 16, 2017. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The closure, which drew furious complaints from the Jordanian-appointed Waqf Muslim trust that administers the compound, was the first time the site was closed since 1969. Jordan, a custodian of the sacred compound, called for its immediate reopening. Netanyahu acted quickly to allay Muslim fears, saying that the status quo at the Muslim-administered site “will be preserved.” But Gaza’s Hamas rulers called the act a “religious war” and urged Palestinians to carry out more attacks.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan during a visit to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, July 31, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan during a visit to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, July 31, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The reopening, Erdan said, will be accompanied by heightened security measures, a response to the fact that the shooters had managed to smuggle their guns into the compound before the attack.

Only the Mughrabi Gate entrance, used by Jews and foreign visitors, had a metal detector before Sunday, Erdan said.

According to the daily Israel Hayom, Israel has not had metal detectors at all nine gates into the Temple Mount since 2000, when they were removed at Jordan’s insistence. A police plan in 2014 called for them to be reinstated, but they were only placed at some gates, given the issue’s sensitivity.

Netanyahu’s office announced the lifting of the closure late Saturday, saying in a statement, “It was decided to gradually reopen the site tomorrow to worshipers, visitors and tourists.”

The statement added that sensors and detectors would be set up at all gates leading into the site, along with “further additional security measures.” Cameras would be set up outside the gates, the statement added.

Erdan said no decision had yet been taken to add security cameras inside the compound, a proposal opposed in the past by Jordan.

Muslim worshipers prevented from entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque at the Temple Mount pray outside Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, July 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
Muslim worshipers prevented from entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque at the Temple Mount pray outside Jerusalem’s Old City, Friday, July 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Any changes to the flashpoint holy site required coordination, he said. “We have to remember that any action that changes the situation on the Mount requires the approval of the political echelon, because this usually has to be coordinated with Jordan and other international actors.”

But in the end, he insisted, the decision would be Israel’s. “Israel is the sovereign at the Mount, no matter what other states think. If we decide that an action has certain advantages, we’ll act.”

Erdan acknowledged the practical challenges that would have to be overcome.

“On Fridays and during Ramadan tens of thousands of people, and sometimes over 100,000, enter in just a few hours,” he said. “There is a concern that [metal detectors] will create long lines, and that those operating the detectors will become targets for terror attacks. There is also an issue with checking women entering the Mount. This is a project that presents many dilemmas both at the political level and at the operational one.”

Avi Issacharoff and the Associated Press contributed to this report

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