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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Tensions rise and tempers flare in Jerusalem

Why has Israel introduced such provocative new security measures at Al Aqsa compound?

The crisis of Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's Old City could escalate still further. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP
The crisis of Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's Old City could escalate still further. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

Jerusalem is one of the most extraordinary and meaningful places on Earth. The city’s streets and alleys resonate with history and faith – the Al Aqsa mosque compound is one of the holiest places in Islam. The Dome of the Rock, adjacent to the mosque, is one of the most recognisable monuments in the world.

The compound itself is also a scene of frequent flashpoints ­and has become synonymous with persistent Israeli provocations: Ariel Sharon’s visit to the mosque is widely regarded as the moment that triggered the Second Intifada in 2000. Two years ago, hundreds of Israeli Jews laid siege to the compound during a brutal uptick in violence. This week, bloodshed returned to the city’s streets after police shut down the mosque following a shootout involving two police officers and three assailants.

In a deliberate act of provocation, the Israeli government has since installed metal detectors and video cameras at three of the entrances to the compound, despite the custodianship of the mosque being in the hands of the Jordanian government.

The move has sparked outrage around the city and the world, in recognition that any changes to the site, especially enormously inflammatory ones such as these, are only likely to bring tensions to the boil.

Calls for the immediate removal of the security arches have been ignored by the Israelis. As it watches from afar, the Trump administration has said it is urging all sides to take steps to reduce tensions. The US state department said the internationally recognised status quo should be observed. As The National reported, Jordan has reasserted its role at Al Aqsa.

Separately, Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, spoke with his Russian counterpart about the matter, commenting on Twitter, of the urgent need to “restore calm”. A joint statement by the Waqf Council and the mufti of Jerusalem asked worshippers to pray on the streets around the compound rather than enter it, in protest at the aggressive actions by the Israelis.

Thousands will return to the site this weekend. But what circumstances will meet them? The crisis appears destined to escalate, precisely because the metal detectors have remained. Tensions have only built since last weekend. Tempers have not been cooled.

What happens next is, of course, an open question, but we do know that the words of the American administration are not enough to turn the head of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Action is required to quell the Israeli prime minister, who seems intent on stirring up trouble. His provocations on Al Aqsa will only lead to a bad outcome.