Analysis

Temple Mount Crisis: Israeli Defense Chiefs Believe Metal Detectors Not Worth the Bloodshed

Israel's top brass assume Netanyahu knows what must be done to resolve the Temple Mount crisis. The question is if he’s ready to pay the political price

A Palestinian youth is detained by an Israeli border police officer during scuffles that erupted after Palestinians held prayers in Jerusalem protest over the Temple Mount metal detectors July 17, 2017.
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

If the artificial crisis that has been blown out of proportions by the Palestinians over Israel’s decision to place metal detectors at the entrances to the Temple Mount isn’t solved, Jerusalem will find itself in the most dangerous situation it has been in for years.

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Almost every disagreement on the contested Temple Mount in Jerusalem turns immediately into a symbolic, if not sacred, matter, for which people are ready to get hurt and even die. This week it was caused by the metal detectors the police brought to the Mount, following the shooting attack in which two Israeli policemen were killed.

The Jerusalem District Police proposed setting up the metal detector gates after it transpired that the three assailants from Umm al-Fahm had smuggled their weapons into the Al-Aqsa mosque. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan accepted the proposal, which was approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Erdan told Army Radio on Thursday that the defense establishment didn’t object to the move initially.

A woman checks metal detectors as they are installed at an entrance to the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City July 16, 2017
RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

Since that point, the deeper the crisis, the greater the defense establishment’s conviction that the conflict with the Palestinians over the gates was unnecessary and extremely risky. The struggle to remove the gates was spearheaded by senior Muslim Waqf members, while Hamas and the Islamic Movement’s northern branch in Israel helped fan the flames.

Radical rightist Jews, who engaged in provocation while the Muslims kept away from the Temple Mount for most of the week, exacerbated the tension.

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The army, Shin Bet and Coordinator of Government Activities in the West Bank officials don’t question Israel’s authority to set up the metal detectors in a bid to reduce the danger of attacks. But most security experts say the metal detectors can be bypassed with relative ease. The police will have difficulty inspecting tens of thousands of Muslim worshippers thronging to Friday prayers on the Mount without creating insufferable congestion, not to mention the tension involved in performing searches on the women.

A Muslim woman walks past Israel Police officer in Jerusalem's Old City ahead of Friday prayers, July 21, 2017
Olivier Fitoussi

This is why all the defense establishment leaders, apart from the police commissioner, advised Netanyahu on the phone on Wednesday (the prime minister was in Hungary) to find a way to solve the dispute by the end of the week. The gates’ benefit is not worth the blood that may be spilt, they said.

“We don’t think it’s a casus belli,” a senior IDF officer said cautiously. His colleagues were more blatant. “It’s madness, simply madness,” one of them said. Others suggested the primary-election atmosphere in Likud could reignite the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu was warned of the grave dangers and the fear that large demonstrations may erupt, defying the Jordanian king’s authority. This week Jordan proposed conducting symbolic security checks at the entrances, but removing the metal detectors themselves. Netanyahu hesitated whether to take this alternative in Thursday’s debates.

Whether Erdan’s moves stem from deep ideological conviction or he only wants to muster support among the Likud’s base, his hard line is consistent. Erdan had taken a firm stand about not returning Palestinian assailants’ bodies, despite security experts’ opinion that it would not serve as a deterrent. Also, he has recently stopped family visits to Gazan prisoners jailed in Israel, despite the Shin Bet and Prison Service’s objection. In the Temple Mount affair, he manipulated Netanyahu into a corner. With Naftali Bennett calling to exercise greater control on the Temple Mount, insistence on keeping the gates has suddenly become a test of patriotism.

Defense establishment top brass assume Netanyahu knows what must be done. The question is if he’s ready to pay the political price for it. Netanyahu already underwent a seminal trauma with the Temple Mount at the beginning of his first term, with the riots that erupted over opening the Western Wall tunnel in September 1996. He was burnt then twice. According to his version, the defense establishment chiefs misled him, while the riots, in which 17 Israelis and some 100 Palestinians were killed, forced him to give in to Yasser Arafat and sign the Hebron agreement.

Looking for a way out

Palestinian leaders are also frantically looking for a way out of the crisis. Mahmoud Abbas was the sole Arab leader who denounced the attack, in a conversation with Netanyahu that Israel published. Both sides are interested in external mediation, but the Trump administration appears to be responding slowly.

Former President Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, who was described in Israel as messianic and obsessive, personally handled two severe crises concerning the Temple Mount. The compromises Kerry hammered out included installing surveillance cameras on the Mount. The Palestinians sabotaged the plan’s implementation and Jordan, which supported it, was forced to back down.

The Palestinian interest is clear. Constant camera surveillance would show frequent violations of the status quo on their part, such as accumulating weapons in the compound and initiating incidents against the Israeli security forces.

The incident raised concern in the IDF’s General Staff last week, as it seemed to be drawn from an extreme scenario occasionally simulated in army drills. Three Israeli Arabs carrying out an attack on the Temple Mount and killing two Druze officers? It sounds almost like a sure recipe for a widespread violent outburst that could sweep up the Arab community inside the Green Line as well.

But the conflagration didn’t happen, in part due to the government’s relatively balanced response. Now, unless the talks to settle the difference over the magnetic gates succeed, the damage potential is on the rise again. Yesterday the General Staff decided to keep on duty five battalions that had been due to take the weekend off after a training period, for fear of escalation in the West Bank and Gaza border.