Israel briefly detains top Waqf official over Temple Mount protests
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Israel briefly detains top Waqf official over Temple Mount protests

Cleric reportedly banned from entering site for a week; Jordan-controlled body overseeing Muslim holy sites takes on new activist Palestinian members, launches protests

Palestinians worshipers gather before Friday noon prayers at the premises of the Golden Gate on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, on February 22, 2019. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Palestinians worshipers gather before Friday noon prayers at the premises of the Golden Gate on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, on February 22, 2019. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Israeli police briefly detained the head of the Islamic authority that oversees Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem early Sunday following recent protests there.

The cleric, Sheikh Abdelazeem Salhab, was appointed to head the Waqf by neighboring Jordan, which strongly protested the arrest.

Jordan’s minister of Islamic affairs, Abdul Nasser Abul Basal, said the Israeli action was “dangerous and an unacceptable escalation” that affected Jordan’s role as the custodian of Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem, according to the Petra news agency.

Israeli police confirmed the arrest, and the Waqf later said police had released Salhab and banned him from entering the site for a week.

Sheikh Abdelazeem Salhab (Screen grab via YouTube)

Najah Bakirat, deputy head of the Waqf organization, was also arrested Sunday morning, according to Palestinian media reports.

The move comes amid rising tensions over a section of the Temple Mount that has been closed by Israeli court order for over 15 years. The Golden Gate, also known as the Gate of Mercy, was sealed by Israeli authorities in 2003 because the group managing the area had ties to Hamas, and it has been kept closed to stop illegal construction work there by the Waqf. Israeli officials believe the work has led to the destruction of antiquities from periods of Jewish presence in the area.

Last week the Waqf administration appealed to the attorney general, asking that he intervene in the police decision to close the gate, the Haaretz daily reported Sunday.

The Waqf has seen a new infusion of activists recently as Jordan, its longtime patron and overseer, moved earlier this month to share control with local Jerusalem Palestinian leaders.

In mid-February, Jordan enlarged the Waqf’s council from 11 members to 18. For the first time, Palestinian Authority officials and religious leaders were installed in the body, which has historically been made up of individuals close to the Jordanian monarchy.

Border Police patrol an entrance to the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, on February 19, 2019. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The change is a bid by Amman to begin to share responsibility for the holy site, the location of the biblical Jewish temples, and now of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock shrine, which in recent years has become an epicenter of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as between competing regional powers.

The expansion of the Waqf’s council triggered new violence and tension at the holy site. On February 14, the enlarged council met for the first time on the Temple Mount, near the Golden Gate. After the meeting, its members went to the Golden Gate site to pray.

Israeli police responded by summoning the head of the Waqf, Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib al-Tamimi, for questioning, but the summons were later canceled, apparently following pressure from Jordan.

Palestinians worshipers gather before Friday noon prayers at the premises of the Golden Gate on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, on February 22, 2019. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Four days later, on Monday, the Waqf, possibly in response to the earlier summons, mobilized worshipers to the site and initiated protest prayers in front of the locked gates. Several Palestinian men then kicked the gates down and went in.

Police officers rushed the structure, sparking clashes and leading to the arrest of five Palestinian activists.

During the clashes, police sealed off the entire Temple Mount compound for roughly three hours on Monday afternoon. The closure drew angry rebukes from Jordan and the PA.

Police accused the Waqf of trying to “change the status quo” at the sensitive site by convening in the closed area last week.

In an apparent bid to avoid further violent clashes during Friday prayers, police arrested 60 people overnight Thursday suspected of “planning disturbances” and allowed Palestinian worshipers to enter the Golden Gate area to pray over the weekend.

Palestinian demonstrators break open locked gates at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City on February 18, 2019. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The ongoing tensions at the site are part of the reason for the expansion of the Waqf council by Jordan, according to the Haaretz daily. Amman first considered the move in the wake of violent protests that followed a terror attack in which Palestinian gunmen killed Israeli police officers guarding the Temple Mount in mid-2017.

Israel installed metal detectors at the compound’s entrances following that attack, triggering weeks of protests by Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally ordered the detectors removed after regional allies warned that the fight over the holy site was strengthening the hands of Islamist factions throughout the region.

Jordan believes its influence at the Temple Mount was eroded by those events, while Palestinian leaders who led the protests saw their influence grow.

The Waqf council’s new membership reflects that shift. The new members include PA officials Hatem Abdel Kader and the PA’s governor in Jerusalem, Adnan al-Husayn; religious leaders Akrama Sabri, considered close to Turkey’s ruling AKP party, and the Mufti of Jerusalem Muhammad Hussein; and the president of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, Imad Abu Kishk.

Palestinian fears about purported Israeli plans to change the 52-year arrangement on the Temple Mount — where the Waqf maintains administrative control and the Israel Police security control — have become a daily staple in Palestinian political rhetoric and media reports in recent years. Multiple car-rammings, stabbings and shootings have been attributed by Palestinian attackers to the alleged efforts by Israel to alter the status quo at the site, according to which Jews may visit but not pray there.

Right-wing Israeli activists in recent years have challenged the prayer prohibition, but the Israeli government has firmly and repeatedly said it intends to uphold the old arrangement.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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