Palestinian Muslim leaders rule out immediate return of worshippers to Al Aqsa
Senior Palestinian Islamic leaders ruled out an immediate return of worshippers to Al Aqsa on Tuesday after Israel dismantled controversial metal detectors at entrances to the mosque compound in Jerusalem.
At a meeting attended by Sheikh Abdul Azim Salhab, the chairman of the Waqf, the Islamic authority in charge of Al Aqsa, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, and Sheikh Ekrema Sabri, the chairman of the higher Islamic Council, which has jurisdiction over Muslim religious matters in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, it was decided that worshippers should continue refusing to attend prayers at Al Aqsa. It was also decided that a sit-in protest launched ten days ago at Lion's Gate — an entrance to the Old City located near the mosque compound — would continue.
A statement issued by the leaders after the meeting said they had "authorised the directorate of the Islamic Waqf in Jerusalem to prepare an initial report on the situation inside and outside blessed Al Aqsa mosque to investigate what has taken place in terms of aggression inside and outside Al Aqsa. In light of the report, a decision will be taken regarding entering Al Aqsa mosque and dismantling the sit-in strike that began ten days ago."
Islamic authorities called on worshippers not to enter the mosque compound, known as Haram Al Sharif, on July 16 in response to Israel's installation of metal detectors at entrances to the holy site. That move followed a deadly July 14 attack on Israeli police at Haram Al Sharif by three Palestinian gunmen, who were citizens of Israel. While Israeli officials said the detectors were for security, Palestinians perceived them as a step towards Israel's takeover of the mosque, Islam's third holiest site.
Clashes erupted in East Jerusalem and the West Bank following the installation of the metal detectors, leaving four Palestinians dead and dozens more injured. Meanwhile, solidarity protests against Israel were held around the world from Kuala Lumpur to Khartoum. On Friday night last week, a Palestinian stabbed to death three members of a settler family in their home in the West Bank. He had written on Facebook before the attack that he planned to take action for the sake of Al Aqsa.
The Israeli security cabinet decided late on Monday to remove the metal detectors, saying Israel would implement other measures that used more advanced technology at Haram Al Sharif, which is also sacred to Jews as Temple Mount. Israeli media reported that these would be advanced technology "smart cameras" which would be able to detect concealed weapons. As with the initial decision to install the metal detectors, the Israeli government did not consult with the Palestinian East Jerusalem leadership over what the detectors should be replaced with.
The decision by the senior Islamic leaders to continue with the sit-in at Lion's Gate, and a directive that the faithful will "continue to pray close to the gates and plaza of Al Aqsa and in the streets of Jerusalem", means that tensions over the site will remain high.
Sheikh Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, said: "The decision of entering Al Aqsa is a decision of magnitude for the nation and its sons and when we go to Aqsa to pray in it we will be with every Palestinian in his force and components. Until now no decision has been taken to enter and pray in Al Aqsa."
Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah also rebuffed Israel's decision to remove the detectors.
"We reject all obstacles that hinder freedom of worship and we demand a return to the situation where things stood before July 14," the day of the attack on police at Haram Al Sharif, Mr Hamdallah told his cabinet.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas called for a meeting of top Palestinian leaders in Ramallah on Tuesday night to decide on a response to the removal of the detectors and the plan to install "smart cameras". In line with inflamed public opinion, Mr Abbas has ordered a freeze in "all contacts" with Israel, including co-ordination on security matters with the Israeli army.
The Israeli reversal on the metal detectors came hours after Jordan agreed to free an Israeli embassy security guard who shot dead two Jordanians in an incident where the exact circumstances remain murky. At some point, the guard was stabbed with a screwdriver.
Jordan had initially barred the guard from returning to Israel, with officials saying they needed to question him as part of an investigation into the incident. Israel insisted he had diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention, however, and a tense standoff ensued that was resolved when Jordan agreed to release the guard.
In a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied he gained the guard's release by promising Jordan's King Abdullah to remove the detectors, Israel's Ynet news agency reported. But cabinet ministers reportedly said otherwise.
Jordan's Ammon news agency also reported the two issues were linked. It quoted an official Jordanian source as saying that "deep discussions had taken place with the Israeli side regarding Al Aqsa mosque, hinting at concessions to be made by the Israeli side, including removal of metal detectors and reducing tensions at Al Aqsa".
Several thousand Jordanians demonstrated during the funeral of one of the Jordanians shot dead in the embassy incident on Tuesday, urging their government to close the Israeli embassy in Amman and scrap the 1994 peace treaty with Israel.
Demonstrators chanted "No to an Israeli embassy or ambassador on Jordanian land" as they carried the coffin of Mohammad Jawawdah, 16, to his burial place in a cemetery in the capital.
The 1994 accord, the second to be concluded with Israel by an Arab country after Egypt, is unpopular with many Jordanians, many of whom are of Palestinian origin.
* Additional reporting by Reuters