Analysis |

Temple Mount Crisis Is Nearing the Point of No Return

Metal detectors will only help maintain security temporarily at the holy site until an attacker finds a way of outsmarting them

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Israeli security forces stand by as Palestinian Muslim worshippers pray outside Lions' Gate, a main entrance to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 23, 2017, in protest against new Israeli security measures
Muslim worshippers outside the Old City's Lions' Gate on Sunday night.
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Israel's objective during the current Temple Mount crisis must be to get back to normal no later than Thursday, so as to restore calm in time for Friday prayers at the site.

Two entire weeks of refraining from prayer at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound on the mount, in protest over the means Israel has installed to ensure security there, could lead the clash to the point of no return.

To restore calm, symbolic steps must be taken that will demonstrate a return to the status quo at the site.

When Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Interior Minister Arye Dery complain bitterly about the erosion of the status quo that is so important to them when it comes to matters of their religion – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responds with alacrity. But devout Muslims are no different from ultra-Orthodox Jews, except for the fact that the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties can be stopped by High Court of Justice rulings and can work to change the law, while the Palestinians can only try to enlist outside support by refusing under the existing circumstances to enter the place that is sacred to them.

In the political process that Netanyahu is trying to thwart, when he demands as a precondition that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ recognize Israel as a Jewish state, he imposes a religious dimension on a national struggle. And when the premier once again raises the issue of Israeli control over the Temple Mount, he reminds everyone that no one recognizes the annexation of East Jerusalem, including the Western Wall – as was made clear by President Donald Trump during his visit here.

Israel's claim against any foreign control of the Western Wall is weakened when it insists on flaunting its domination over the Noble Sanctuary, or Haram al-Sharif, as Muslims call the Temple Mount.

The renewal of regular prayers requires removal of any new, prominent signs of Israeli involvement (i.e., metal detectors) there, and a clear demonstration of the return of the authority and responsibility of the Waqf Islamic trust that administers the site.

Senior Israeli security officials reminded us Sunday that for many years – until other political developments cast a shadow over this understanding as well – the guard who kept his eye open for suspicious people approaching the Temple Mount belonged to the Waqf.

The smuggling of weapons and explosives into this compound, to commit a terror attack on the mount itself or to launch such an attack from it, was never the aspiration of hostile elements, and if it was, it was prevented without particular fanfare. But now a failure in thinking has been added to the mix: If the new security devices are meant to be such a tough challenge to those seeking to bring arms into the holy site, they will also spur those individuals to find ways to get around them, from drones to tunnels.

Determined underground organizations have been able to hide submachine guns and explosives in more fortified places than this, in Jerusalem and elsewhere.

Israel also has various levels of protection. Security around Netanyahu is much heavier than that offered to other leaders, who are better protected than ordinary Israeli citizens in Haifa or the West Bank settlement of Halamish. The Shin Bet security service, which this time around has acted in a moderate, permissive way, would have turned the mount into a fortress if it had been asked to act on its usual combat doctrine when protecting the prime minister, his office, his homes and the places he visits.

When it comes to the big picture, the metal detectors will help only for a short time and in a limited way until an attacker finds some way of outsmarting them. And because the task at hand – of preventing another attack like the one on July 14 – is supposed to stem from the goal, and not the other way around, and the goal is to increase Israeli security in the Palestinian domain – leaving the metal detectors in place for the inane reason of prestige defeats the goal. It also costs the Israel Defense Forces, in terms of tying down five brigades, and compromises their preparedness for war.

Moreover, there is also the risk of attacks like the one that occurred Friday night at Halamish. It’s odd that Netanyahu and his ministers repeatedly declaim their accusations against the Palestinian Authority for inciting murderers, as if the latter are human robots motivated by brainwashing and not because they have come to their deadly conclusions on their own. And Netanyahu never condemned the rabbis who influenced the killer of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Yigal Amir, with their sermons.

Since appearances must be kept up, various alternatives were discussed Sunday. Among them, annual tickets for worshippers that would be issued by the Waqf at various places in Jerusalem and the West Bank, in fact everywhere, as needed, and untouched by Israeli hands. Worshippers would enter the mount without delay, showing the ticket to a barcode reader. If an attack happens, it would be easier to address. Issuing tickets won’t stop attacks, but then, neither will the metal detectors.

This and other ideas are making the rounds in the offices of the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, who is an essential part of the triangle that includes IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and chief of the Central Command, Maj. Gen. Roni Numa. Such suggestions could be included in the solution being hammered out in secret negotiations that will be publicized with backing from various Muslim and Arab authorities, both religious and political – from respected clerics to the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

There are three more days to go. This situation must not be dragged out.

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