Israel dismantles metal detectors at Jerusalem holy site
Controversial devices expected to be replaced by 'advanced technologies' including sophisticated cameras
Israel has dismantled metal detectors it installed a week ago at a contested Jerusalem shrine, hoping to defuse a crisis with the Muslim world, including security ally Jordan, the Muslim custodian of the holy site.
The removal of the devices followed the resolution of a 24-hour diplomatic standoff with Jordan over a deadly shooting at the Israeli Embassy in the kingdom, suggesting a broader deal had been struck.
However, there were signs Tuesday that the crisis over the shrine, revered by Muslims and Jews, was not over yet.
Israel announced it would replace the metal detectors with new security measures. This would include "advanced technologies," reportedly sophisticated cameras, and additional police deployments.
Muslim leaders had demanded that security arrangements go back to what they were before the metal detectors were erected.
Ikrema Sabri, a senior Muslim cleric, said Tuesday that Muslims should stay away from the shrine, pending a review of the new Israeli measures. The review could be completed by the end of the day.
"Our position is that for now, nobody should enter," he told The Associated Press.
The 15-hectare esplanade in Jerusalem's Old City is the third holiest site of Islam and the holiest of Judaism, once home to biblical Temples. It sits on the fault line of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and triggered several major confrontations in the past.
Israel had erected metal detectors at the gates to the Muslim-administered site last week, after Arab gunmen killed two Israeli police guards there.
The move incensed the Muslim world, amid allegations that Israel was trying to expand control over the site under the guise of security — a claim Israel denies.
The installation of the metal detectors set off widespread protests and deadly Israeli-Palestinian violence over the past week.
Large crowds of Muslim worshippers prayed outside the shrine in protest every day, refusing to pass through the metal detectors.
Israel has denied it has a hidden agenda, portraying the metal detectors as a needed means to prevent attacks.
However, the Israeli government has come under growing diplomatic pressure in recent days to reconsider the decision. It also faced growing domestic criticism that it had acted hastily, without weighing the repercussions of installing new devices at the volatile site.
The diplomatic crisis with Jordan over the embassy shooting lent more urgency to finding a solution.
2 Jordanians killed
On Monday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan's King Abdullah II spoke by phone.
Following the conversation, the Israeli Embassy staff, including the security guard who had killed two Jordanians after being attacked by one with a screwdriver, returned to Israel from their base in Jordan.
Jordan initially said the guard could not leave without an investigation, while Israel said he had diplomatic immunity.
Israel's security cabinet, meanwhile, announced it would replace the metal detectors with "advanced technologies," reportedly cameras that can detect hidden objects.
The cabinet said police would increase the deployment of forces until the new measures are in place. The statement said the government would budget 100 million shekels ($35 million Cdn) to implement the security plan over a period of "up to six months."
Before dawn Tuesday, workers were seen dismantling one of the devices at the Old City's Lion's Gate, a recent flashpoint and a scene of nightly mass prayer protests by Muslim worshippers.
President Donald Trump's Mideast envoy, Jason Greenblatt, met with Netanyahu before the decision was announced, a sign of the first direct involvement of the U.S. administration since the crisis began. Greenblatt then headed to Jordan.
It was not clear if the compromise would be accepted by Muslim and Palestinian leaders who had demanded a return to the security arrangements that were in place before the mid-July shooting attack.
Mahmoud Aloul, a senior official in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement, said Tuesday that any changes to the previous arrangements are unacceptable.
"Israel is an occupying power and needs to take its hands from our holy sites," he told the Voice of Palestine radio station.
It was not clear if Aloul expressed the views of Abbas. The Palestinian president had announced last week that he was suspending all ties with Israel, including security co-ordination between his forces and Israeli troops in the West Bank, until the metal detectors are removed.
As custodian, Jordan has the final say over Muslim policies at the shrine, but also needs to consider public opinion, including among Palestinians in the Holy Land.
In his phone call with Netanyahu, Jordan's king stressed the need to "remove the measures taken by the Israeli side since the recent crisis broke out" and to agree on steps that would prevent another escalation in the future, Jordan's state news agency Petra said.
Israel captured the Old City compound, along with other territories sought for a Palestinian state, in the 1967 war. Under arrangements put in place then, Muslims administer the site and Jews can visit, but not pray there.
Jordan's ruling Hashemite dynasty draws much of its legitimacy from its role as protector of the holy site. However, it also maintains strategic, if discreet, security ties with Israel — a relationship that has survived several crises and repeated friction over the Jerusalem shrine.
The swift resolution of the latest diplomatic row reflected the overriding interest by both countries to protect their relationship.
As the embassy staff returned to Israel, Jordan's Public Security Directorate said it had completed its investigation into Sunday's shooting.
The security agency said the incident had been triggered by an argument over a furniture delivery.
It said two Jordanians had arrived at a residential building housing embassy staff on Sunday evening to set up bedroom furniture.
One of the Jordanians was the son of the owner the furniture store, later identified as 17-year-old Mohammed Jawawdeh.
An argument erupted between the son of the owner and the embassy guard because of a delay in delivering the furniture, the Jordanian security agency said. The argument took place in the presence of the landlord and a doorman.
"The son of the owner attacked the Israeli diplomat and injured him," the statement said. It said the Israeli fired toward the teen, wounding him, and also struck the landlord who was standing nearby.
The two Jordanians died of their wounds at a hospital.
Earlier Monday, al-Jawawdeh's father, Zakariah, had called for an investigation, saying his son deserves justice. It was not clear if the findings of the security agency will satisfy him.