'God willing this is just the beginning'

Palestinians see Temple Mount showdown as rare grassroots victory

Masses in the streets protesting security measures at the holy site credited with forcing Israel to back down, and many now want to keep ball rolling

Palestinians celebrate outside the Lions Gate entrance to Jerusalem's Old City on July 27, 2017 after more Israeli barriers were removed from the Temple Mount entrance. (AFP/ AHMAD GHARABLI)
Palestinians celebrate outside the Lions Gate entrance to Jerusalem's Old City on July 27, 2017 after more Israeli barriers were removed from the Temple Mount entrance. (AFP/ AHMAD GHARABLI)

AFP — Though it was well past midnight, as news filtered through that Israeli police were removing the remaining new security measures from outside the Temple Mount compound, hundreds of Palestinians flooded the streets.

When one youth started to taunt police warily watching the gathering crowds early on Thursday, others angrily remonstrated with him.

This was a night for celebrating what the Palestinians saw as a rare victory.

For Israelis, the situation grew out of a horrible terror attack on July 14, launched by three gun-wielding Arab Israelis from within the holy site who killed two policemen standing outside.

But many of them also viewed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis as inadequate.

While Palestinians’ joy at the removal of the security measures was somewhat tarnished by clashes inside the compound — which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque — later Thursday, Palestinians that night chanted and hugged each other, as car horns sounded incessantly.

A huge Palestinian flag was carried by young men onto one of the Old City’s walls — an extremely rare act in a city that Israel considers its undivided capital.

“We feel joyous. I live quite far away but I walked here for Al-Aqsa,” said Nisreen, a young woman in the crowd.

“The Israelis think this is it. God willing this is just the beginning.”

Worshipers wave a Palestinian flag and flash the victory gesture in front of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount on July 27, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)
Worshipers wave a Palestinian flag and flash the victory gesture in front of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount on July 27, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

The celebrations came nearly two weeks after the attack near the Temple Mount compound, the most sacred site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif.

The three attackers used guns that they had smuggled into the site to shoot dead the two police officers standing at the nearby Lions Gate entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem. The gunmen then fled back inside the Temple Mount compound where they were shot by pursuing police.

The site, which includes the revered Al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock, serves as a key unification point for Palestinians. It is celebrated by Jews as the location of both the First and Second Temples.

Israel responded to the terror attack by installing new security measures, particularly metal detectors and cameras at approach points and entrances to the holy site.

Officials noted such measures were standard at major religious sites but Palestinians saw it as Israel trying to take further control of the compound, a charge that Israel adamantly denied.

The Waqf, a Jordan-based Islamic endowments authority that runs the compound under a delicate status-quo agreement following the 1967 war, refused to enter until the measures were removed and instructed Muslims to stay away. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah political party as well as the Hamas terror group called for “Days of Rage” against the measures.

Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli security forces near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, on July 24, 2017. (AFP/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli security forces near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, on July 24, 2017. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

Days of street protests followed, with thousands praying outside the compound as part of a boycott. On the first Friday with the new measures in place, protests hit a boiling point, with deadly violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and a terror attack in which a Palestinian sneaked into a West Bank home and stabbed three people to death.

Early on Tuesday, the metal detectors were removed but railings and other new structures remained in place. The boycott continued.

Two days later, police returned around 1 a.m. to remove the rest, sparking the joyous scenes. The Waqf instructed that the boycott continue until it had reviewed the situation on the ground and later declared the compound fit for worship as did the PA.

But while the Palestinian protest movement was called to the streets by the Waqf, Palestinians have celebrated the Israeli move as a rare grassroots victory.

“This cut across all lines — religious, not so religious, Muslim, Christian, rich or poor,” Diana Buttu, a former Palestinian official turned analyst, said.

According to Buttu and others, the Palestinian political leadership of all factions, including the internationally recognized leadership of the Palestinian Authority, had been mostly irrelevant, with the movement led largely by protesters.

“Palestinians have been very encouraged by what for them is one success within a sea of defeats,” Ofer Zalzberg from the International Crisis Group think tank told AFP..

Israeli border policemen install metal detectors outside the Lion's Gate, a main entrance to the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 16, 2017, after security forces reopened the ultra-sensitive site, whose closure after a deadly attack earlier in the week sparked anger. (AFP/ AHMAD GHARABLI)
Israeli border policemen install metal detectors outside the Lion’s Gate, a main entrance to the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Old City, on July 16, 2017, after security forces reopened the ultra-sensitive site, whose closure after a deadly attack earlier in the week sparked anger. (AFP/ AHMAD GHARABLI)

He put the victory down to an “Israeli inability to stop the movement because of the sheer size and because it was around Al-Aqsa.”

Al-Aqsa is a rare unifying symbol for all Palestinians and there is a risk they could fall back into political infighting now that the immediate threat has been defeated, he added.

But Zalzberg said the mostly young people who had taken part in the two weeks of protests will be keen to push their leaders.

“The next time there is a major issue, will they not go back to the same religious authorities and tell them: ‘You were successful with the metal detectors. Why don’t we do something?'”

In Israel, leaders are also under pressure from the opposite direction, with some 77 percent of Israeli Jews saying they thought the move constituted “capitulation.”

Netanyahu, who heads what is seen as the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, has since called for the death penalty for the Palestinian who killed carried out the Halamish settlement attack in what some analysts saw as a move to please his right-wing base.

“There is a strong sense of humiliation, especially among the right wing,” Zalzberg said.

“They are pushing the government to reverse this humiliation by giving them something else.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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