Israel removes controversial metal detectors at Al-Aqsa

Israeli security forces yesterday started dismantling metal detectors installed recently at entrances to the compound of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City. The site is regarded as holy by both Muslims and Jews.
Israeli security forces yesterday started dismantling metal detectors installed recently at entrances to the compound of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City. The site is regarded as holy by both Muslims and Jews.PHOTO: REUTERS

Move comes after intense talks with Jordan, custodian of mosque

JERUSALEM • In a major reversal, Israeli security forces yesterday began removing controversial metal detectors that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered placed at the entrances to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City.

But Muslim officials, who had claimed that the devices were to increase Israel's control over access to the mosque, said worshippers should still boycott the holy site.

The turnabout came after a day of intense discussions between leaders of Israel and Jordan, the custodian of the shrine, and with American mediation.

It also occurred hours after the end of a stand-off prompted by a confrontation at the Israeli Embassy in Amman, Jordan's capital, that led to the deaths of two Jordanians.

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Mr Netanyahu and his supporters said the metal scanners were needed after three Arab-Israeli gunmen smuggled homemade machine guns into the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on July 14, then shot and killed two Israeli policemen at the site which is regarded as holy by both Muslims and Jews.

The removal of the devices appears to have been part of a deal struck between Mr Netanyahu and Jordan's King Abdullah II, who oversees the administration of the holy site as part of an agreement dating to 1967.

In a telephone call on Monday, the King urged Mr Netanyahu to "remove the cause" of the current crisis, according to Jordan's official news service.

The unilateral decision by Mr Netanyahu to set up the metal detectors had upset the Jordanian monarch, the official custodian of the Jerusalem mosque, and sparked a surge of deadly violence and protests in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Amman.

Early yesterday, Israel's Security Cabinet, whose proceedings are usually secret, issued an unusual statement, saying it had "accepted the recommendation of all the security bodies" to replace the metal detectors with less obtrusive security measures based on advanced technologies.

On Sunday, a Jordanian worker of Palestinian descent used a screwdriver to stab and wound an Israeli security guard at the Israeli Embassy in Amman. The guard shot and killed the assailant and killed another Jordanian, reportedly an innocent bystander.

Fearing violence against its diplomats, Israel sought to have its embassy staff, including the guard, quickly return to Israel - a move initially blocked by Jordan, which insisted that the guard first be interrogated about the killing. They were allowed to leave on Monday.

The Prime Minister's Office denied that Jordan had demanded the detectors be removed as a condition of allowing the embassy staff to leave.

Even so, hours after the embassy staff's safe return, Israel's Security Cabinet decided to remove the metal detectors and buttress security at the entrances to the mosque compound with high-tech cameras instead.

The decision by Israel to remove the scanners represents a win for the Palestinians, who had vowed not to pass through the detectors. Instead, Muslim worshippers gathered at Israeli police barricades and prayed outside.

The Palestinians say their fury - manifested in mass protests and the killing of three Israelis at a Jewish settlement last Friday - is driven by fear that their sacred mosque is under threat. The claim is dismissed by many Israelis, who say the metal detectors were a normal, everyday security tool.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2017, with the headline 'Israel removes controversial metal detectors at Al-Aqsa'. Print Edition | Subscribe