Following the removal of recently added security infrastructure from entrances to the Temple Mount, Jerusalem police chief Yoram Halevi warned Thursday that further violence over access to the holy site would not be tolerated and threatened that “there will be casualties” if protesters attempt to disrupt the fragile peace.
Muslims refused to enter the site for almost two weeks after security equipment, including metal detectors and cameras, was installed in the wake of a shooting attack on July 14, in which three Arab Israelis used weapons smuggled into the sacred compound to kill two Israeli policemen.
Speaking at the Western Wall shortly after Muslim leaders declared an end to the boycott of the Temple Mount and announced Friday prayers would go ahead as normal, Halevi said that authorities would do all they could to prevent further unrest but protesters “should not be surprised” if police respond to disturbances with force.
“No one should try to test us tomorrow,” he told reporters, promising calm if worshipers follow the instruction of their religious leaders to end the protests. But “if there are people who try tomorrow to disturb the peace, to harm police or citizens, they should not be surprised: There will be casualties and people injured,” he said, reiterating it two more times during the course of his public comments.
“Don’t test us, because we know how to respond, and we know how to respond directly and forcefully,” Halevi added emphatically.
The removal of the last installations overnight prompted Palestinian crowds to celebrate in the streets near the site. Palestinians had said they viewed them as an assertion of control by Israel, while Israeli authorities said the metal detectors were needed because the July 14 attackers smuggled guns into the compound and emerged from it to shoot the officers.
Halevi said that while Friday prayers may see additional “victory celebrations,” Palestinians should keep in mind that police are still in charge of Temple Mount security.
“Those who tried to claim differently should know there is Israeli sovereignty on the Mount,” he said. “This is a place that we will protect under all circumstances, at any stage, in any situation.”
Despite the reduction in security measures, the police chief promised not to back down on checking worshipers entering the compound. “We will check anyone suspicious, anyone who we think could disturb the peace, anyone who could be an attacker. They will be stopped at the gate, they will be checked as we have done in the past,” Halevi said.
The tense standoff between Israel and Muslim worshipers at the site has persisted despite the removal of metal detectors on Tuesday — Muslims said they would not return to the Mount until all of the new security measures were rolled back — sparking concerns of major unrest surrounding Friday prayers.
Deadly unrest erupted with the introduction of the new measures, with clashes breaking out around the compound and in the West Bank, leaving five Palestinians dead. A Palestinian also broke into a home in a settlement in the West Bank last week and stabbed four members of the Salomon family, killing three of them.
The decision to remove the new security measures was met with harsh criticism from both the Israeli right — which blasted it as a capitulation — and the left, which argued the measures shouldn’t have been introduced to begin with.
Responding to reports that police opposed the removal of the increased security measures, Halevi did little to deny the disagreements but said that it was not his place to question orders.
“We are people of uniform, people of action, and we will carry out the operational directions of the political echelon,” he said. “Of course, we also have our opinion and we have made that known but we follow the directions we are given.”
The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism and is revered as the site of the biblical temples. It is also the third-holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina, and is known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif. Under an arrangement in place since Israel captured the Old City in the Six Day War in 1967 and extended its sovereignty there, non-Muslims are allowed access to the site but are forbidden to pray there. Under that status quo, Israel is responsible for security at the site while the Jordanian trust — the Waqf — is in charge of administrative duties.