Hundreds of Muslims prayed on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on Sunday as the holy site was reopened, despite an apparent disagreement among senior Islamic clerics over the new security measures introduced by Israel after the terror attack that killed two policemen.
Israel partially reopened the ultra-sensitive holy site, which had been closed since Friday’s attack, having installed new security measures including metal detectors and cameras.
Hundreds of worshipers refused to enter the Temple Mount compound, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), which includes the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. They instead held midday prayers outside the Lions’ Gate entrance to the site, in protest of the new security measures.
“We reject the changes imposed by the Israeli government,” Sheikh Omar Kiswani, Al-Aqsa director, told reporters outside. “We will not enter through these metal detectors.”
Jerusalem police had made clear to the Waqf officials that they were not required to go through the metal detectors.
Under the status quo, established after Israel captured the site in 1967, the site is managed by an Islamic foundation under the auspices of Jordan — the Waqf — and Israel controls access. Also, Jews are allowed to visit, but not pray, at the site, the holiest in Judaism as the place of the biblical temples. Israel has repeatedly denied seeking any change to arrangements.
But despite the protest by Kiswani and others, many worshipers did enter, including Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Islamic Waqf.
Al-Khatib entered from a different gate accompanied by several hundred worshipers, and made no complaint about the newly installed security measures.
When asked why he accepted the new measures, al-Khatib told reporters that he did not want to leave the holy site empty.
Channel 2 news reported that by 5 p.m. some 600 people had entered the site, which had opened at 1 p.m.
Speaking to Channel 2 TV, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said that in the future, Waqf officials might not be subject to security checks depending on the judgement of the police commanders.
However, additional security checks for the public were now non-negotiable. “Live fire from inside the Temple Mount crosses every red line,” he said, referring to Friday’s attack, in which the killers used guns they had apparently hidden inside the compound, and emerged from it and opened fire on the police officers.
Outside the compound on Sunday, hundreds chanted anti-Israel slogans and held their prayers in front of the metal detectors. Some women wailed and cried while telling people not to enter.
Adnan Husseini, the Palestinian Authority’s Jerusalem Affairs minister, said arrangements must return to how they were before the deadly attack.
He said the Palestinians would not accept Israeli security additions at the entrance to the site. Though he acknowledged there was violence, he said it “shouldn’t be an excuse for making changes.”
Erdan denied that the security checks constituted a violation of the status quo. “We respect our partners in administering this site, but, ultimately, Israel Police is responsible for the security of the site.”
Erdan, who is responsible for police, said in a tweet earlier that the Waqf officials’ protest was “opposition to the very existence of the metal detectors.”
Israel also prevented non-Muslims, including Jews and tourists, from going up to the site Sunday, but police said that if things remain quiet, they will be permitted to enter from Monday.
Yoram Halevi, head of Jerusalem District Police, said that the current metal detectors are temporary and that full, final security arrangements are still being worked out.
Jews and others who wish to pray at the Western Wall, which is adjacent to the Temple Mount, are subject to security checks, and must pass through metal detectors. There are security cameras surrounding the area to ensure safety.
The Temple Mount had been closed since Friday, when the 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.
The decision to install the detectors came Saturday night from the Prime Minister’s Office, 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.
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.
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.
Erdan said no decision had yet been taken to add security cameras inside the compound, a proposal opposed in the past by Jordan.
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.”
Judah Ari Gross and The Associated Press contributed to this report