JERUSALEM: Israel said on Saturday it will reopen the ultra-sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, whose closure after a deadly attack sparked anger from Muslims and Jordan, the holy site’s custodian.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said however that metal detectors would be installed at entrances to the site, while cameras would also be mounted in the area. The additional security measures are likely to be controversial. It was unclear if they would be installed immediately. Netanyahu made the announcement as he was set to leave for a visit to France.
The site is also holy to Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount.
“It was decided to gradually open the Temple Mount to worshippers, visitors and tourists beginning tomorrow afternoon [Sunday],” his office said in a statement after he consulted with security chiefs. “It was decided that the entrance gates to the Temple Mount would be equipped with metal detectors and that cameras would be installed outside the mount to cover events on the mount. Additional security steps will be taken later.”
Three Arab Israeli assailants opened fire on Israeli police on Friday in the Old City, killing two of them before fleeing to the nearby Haram al-Sharif compound, where they were shot dead by police. Israeli authorities said they had come from the flashpoint holy site, which includes the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, to commit the attack.
The White House ‘strongly’ condemned Friday’s attack, saying “there must be zero tolerance for terrorism”.
After the attack, Israeli authorities took the highly unusual decision to close the holy site for Friday prayers. Israeli authorities said the move was necessary to carry out security checks.
Wael Arabiyat, Jordan’s Islamic affairs minister, warned that keeping Al-Aqsa mosque closed is ‘dangerous’ and ‘unprecedented’, after Amman called for its immediate reopening. Hundreds of Jordanians, responding to a Muslim Brotherhood call, demonstrated in Amman on Saturday, calling for the “liberation of Al-Aqsa”.
On Saturday, Israeli security forces locked down parts of Jerusalem’s Old City, restricting access through Damascus Gate, the main entrance used by Palestinians. Only residents with identification were allowed to pass.
“This is not security. This is punishment,” said Bader Jweihan, 53, an accountant who was denied entry.
Musa Abdelmenam Qussam, 73 and with poor eyesight, was helped by a grandson as he walked with a cane and sought unsuccessfully to enter. “This mosque is not only for Muslims. Tourists come,” the owner of a book wholesale shop in the Old City said, adding that he usually prays at Al-Aqsa every day. “This city is for all the world. It must be open.”
Jaffa Gate, heavily used by tourists and near the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, was open but with a heavy police presence. A group of tourists from Poland said they were concerned when they heard about Friday’s shooting but wanted to continue their visit. “It stressed me a little,” said Ewa, who did not want to give her last name.
At Lions Gate near the site of the attack, police guarded the entrance and restricted access, checking IDs. The attack and aftermath was one of the most serious incidents in Jerusalem in recent years.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Netanyahu spoke by phone on Friday as tensions rose. Israeli authorities also detained Jerusalem’s top Muslim cleric, grand mufti Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, as crowds gathered at the gates of the Old City after the attack, his son said.
Hussein was released later Friday after being questioned over his call for Muslims to come to Jerusalem following the closure, another of his sons said.
With Al-Aqsa closed, crowds gathered at Old City gates and held Friday prayers there instead. The Haram al-Sharif is central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Palestinians fearing Israel may one day seek to assert further control over it.
It is located in east Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in 1967 and later annexed in a move never recognised by the international community. It is the third-holiest site in Islam and the most sacred for Jews. Jews are allowed to visit but not pray there to avoid provoking tensions.
A wave of unrest that broke out in October 2015 has claimed the lives of at least 281 Palestinians or Arab Israelis, 44 Israelis, two Americans, two Jordanians, an Eritrean, a Sudanese and a Briton, according to an AFP toll.
Israeli authorities say most of the Palestinians killed were carrying out knife, gun or car-ramming attacks. Others were shot dead in protests and clashes, while some were killed in Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip. The violence had greatly subsided in recent months.
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