JERUSALEM – Israel removed an overhead metal bridge and the railings it had recently installed near a contested Jerusalem holy site following Palestinian outrage over the security measures installed after a deadly Arab attack there, but Muslim leaders told worshippers Thursday to continue praying outside the shrine until they decide how to proceed.
Israeli media reported that all the new security inspection devices set outside the entrance to the shrine after the attack were removed. It was not immediately clear whether security cameras that had been mounted on the wall of the compound were also dismantled.
The religious leaders said they would decide later Thursday whether worshippers should return to the shrine for prayers and end a crisis that Israel hoped it had resolved by making concessions at the site.
Palestinians danced, chanted “God is Great” and set off fireworks early Thursday after the devices were removed.
The director of Al-Aqsa mosque, Omar Kiswani, said a meeting of leaders of Muslim institutions would be held later Thursday morning and “will make the appropriate decision.” The Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Hussein, told the faithful to wait for the decision before resuming prayers inside the site.
Israel installed the new security measures earlier this month after Palestinian gunmen shot and killed two police officers from within the site. It said they were necessary to prevent more attacks, while Palestinians claimed Israel was trying to expand its control over the site. The issue sparked some of the worst street clashes in years and threatened to draw Israel into conflict with other Arab and Muslim nations.
Under intense pressure, Israel removed metal detectors that had been installed and said it planned to install sophisticated security cameras instead. But Palestinian politicians and Muslim clerics say that wasn’t enough and demanded Israel restore the situation at the shrine in Jerusalem’s Old City to what it was before the July 14 attack.
The fate of the site is an emotional issue at the heart of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Even the smallest perceived change to delicate arrangements pertaining to the site sparks tensions.
Israel’s decision to add security measures there outraged Muslim and triggered protests, and low-level clashes have continued in and around Jerusalem in the days since. The Red Crescent said 13 people were treated Tuesday night after being hit by rubber bullets during protests.
The continued standoff highlighted the deep distrust between Israel and the Palestinians when it comes to the holy site.
Jews revere the hilltop compound in Jerusalem’s Old City as the Temple Mount, site of the two Jewish biblical temples. It is the holiest site in Judaism and the nearby Western Wall, a remnant of one of the temples, is the holiest place where Jews can pray.
Muslims believe the site marks the spot from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. It is Islam’s third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The latest development could put Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a tough spot as he tries to tamp out a wave of unrest that has triggered international pressure while not appearing to his hard-line base as capitulating.