Israel will gradually reopen the Temple Mount compound to Muslim worshippers on Sunday, having closed the site for the first time since 1969 after three Arab-Israelis shot dead two Israeli police officers there on Friday morning.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the decision to reopen the site following a telephone conversation Saturday evening with the heads of the police, the Shin Bet, and Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan.
The closure drew furious complaints from the Jordanian-appointed Waqf Muslim trust that administers the compound and the Al-Aqsa Mosque there, prompted a demonstration in Jordan, and provoked criticism from much of the Arab world. Israel, which closed off the site throughout Friday and Saturday, said it was searching for weaponry and for information related to the attack.
Israel also restricted access to the Old City to non-residents on Saturday, set up new checkpoints in East Jerusalem, and limited traffic on some roads close to the Old City.
“It was decided to gradually reopen the site tomorrow to worshippers, visitors and tourists,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said late Saturday. In addition it was decided to set up cameras and sensors and detectors at all the gates leading into the site, the statement said, promising “further additional security measures.”
Israel has previously proposed 24-hours cameras around the compound — something Jordan has opposed. Currently such detectors are maintained only at the Mughrabi Gate entrance to the Mount used by non-Muslim visitors.
Israel’s Channel 2 reported on Saturday night that three Waqf officials were under arrest on suspicion of assisting or encouraging the attackers, who shot dead the two policemen near the compound on Friday morning. It said the three gunmen had stored their weapons inside the compound several days before Friday’s attack. One of the three Waqf officials, whose arrest was reported on Friday, was said to have been seen acting suspiciously on security cameras.
Israeli security officials searched religious and administrative buildings on the Mount in the course of Friday and Saturday.
A top Waqf official told the Palestinian news agency Maan on Friday that Israeli security forces had initially detained 58 employees who were at the Temple Mount at the time of the attack. According to Firas Dibs, the employees were interrogated over whether they had taken photos or videos of the attack. Almost all of them were only briefly held, he said.
Waqf officials held a press conference on Saturday at which they complained that Israel had superseded their control of the holy site. But Jerusalem’s police chief Yoram Halevi said the searches had been carried out “with Waqf escorts… Nobody should accuse of doing things we did not do,” he said.
(Israel captured the Old City, including the Temple Mount, from its Jordanian occupiers in 1967. Israel retains overall security control at what is the holiest place in Judaism, as the site of the biblical temples, and the third holiest in Islam, as the site of Al-Aqsa Mosque. But it allowed the Jordanian Waqf to maintain religious and administrative authority at the compound, and forbade Jews from praying there.)
Netanyahu also intends to bar visits to the contested site by Jewish and Arab MKs for the foreseeable future, Channel 2 reported on Saturday. A current ban on such visits had been scheduled to expire later this month.
Ayman Odeh, the head of Israel’s main Arab party, the Joint List, warned in a television interview that the closure of the Mount was a potentially incendiary move that could spark a third intifada uprising.
He stressed his “absolute” opposition to the use of firearms, but also said that “the occupation is the root of all evil.”
Speaking after him on the same Channel 2 news program, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said that “wild incitement” was to blame for attacks like Friday’s, and said Odeh was among those responsible.
Liberman reserved stronger criticism for Sheikh Raed Salah, the Umm al-Fahm based head of the outlawed Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement. Liberman said Salah, who has served several jail terms in Israel for incitement and terrorist connections, “is no different from Islamic State and al-Qaida.”
All three of Friday’s gunmen came from Umm al-Fahm. Several of their relatives were arrested over the weekend on suspicion of involvement in the attack. Mourners’ tents set up by the families of the killers were dismantled on orders of the Israel security authorities late Friday.
Liberman rejected complaints over Israel’s handling of the aftermath of the attack, including the closure of the Mount, saying it was not Israel that had “changed a holy place into a place of terrorism.”
On Friday, Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan had accused the gunmen of “defiling” a holy place with gunfire and bloodshed.
The Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, telephoned by Netanyahu soon after Friday’s attack, denounced the shooting, but called on Israel to reopen the compound. Amid the tension, Israel’s Finance Minister moshe Kahlon on Saturday night cancelled a scheduled meeting on Sunday with PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.
The terrorists, Muhammad Ahmed Muhammad Jabarin, 29, Muhammad Hamad Abdel Latif Jabarin, 19 and Muhammad Ahmed Mafdal Jabarin, 19, used two Carlo-style submachine guns and a pistol to carry out the attack. One of them also tried to stab an officer.
After the shooting, the gunmen fled toward the Temple Mount and other officers gave chase. The police then opened fire, shooting one or more of the attackers dead inside the complex.
In footage released by police Friday, the gunmen can be seen running armed from the Temple Mount into an alleyway where the officers, Haiel Sitawe, 30 and Kamil Shnaan, 22, were stationed, and shooting them.
Reports throughout Friday said the two police officers were killed just outside the Temple Mount compound. However, Channel 2 news reported late Friday that the second policeman may have been killed by the assailants on the Mount itself, after they had fled back.
It was not immediately known how the terrorists brought the weapons into the holy site. Muslim visitors to the Temple Mount complex go through a less rigorous security check than non-Muslim visitors who enter through the Mughrabi Bridge.
Erdan, who is responsible for the police, called the attack “an extremely serious event which crossed all red lines. The investigation is ongoing. We will need to reevaluate all of the security arrangements on the Temple Mount and its environs. I call on all public leaders to act to calm the situation and ensure quiet in Jerusalem.”
In the aftermath of the attack, many right-wing politicians and activists called to change the long-standing arrangements at the holy site that allow Muslim prayer there but forbid Jewish prayer and religious rituals.
However, Netanyahu fended off those requests with a blunt statement from his office saying, “the status quo will be protected.”
Following the attack, Israel briefly detained then released the grand mufti of Jerusalem. In a speech in the Old City, the cleric had condemned the closure. Hussein called on Muslim masses to flood to the holy site, and condemned what he called Friday’s Israeli “aggression” there, Army Radio reported — a presumed reference to the closure of the site and/or to Israeli forces’ shooting of the assailants.
No terror groups took immediate responsibility for the attack, though Hamas did praise it, saying it was a “natural response to Israeli terrorism,” and called for more attacks.
AFP contributed to this report