Israel Releases Temple Mount Custodian Despite Refusing to Sign Order Barring Him From Holy Site

Head of Jerusalem Waqf refuses to sign week-long order barring his entry from the Temple Mount, calls accusations against him 'badge of honor'

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Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab after being released by Israel police in Jerusalem, February 24, 2019.
Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab after being released by Israel police in Jerusalem, February 24, 2019.

The head of the Waqf, the Islamic custodian of the Temple Mount, Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab, has been released after being arrested Sunday over a contested building at the compound in recent days.

He was released despite refusing to consent to a restraining order that would bar him from entering the Temple Mount for one week.

"We refuse to sign the week-long restraining order. The accusations against us as those who opened the Bab al-Rahma compound are a badge of honor for us and we will continue to fight for the Al-Aqsa Mosque," he said after his release.

Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab after being released by Israel police, February 24, 2019.

Sheikh Salhab had been arrested along with his deputy following clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians over the Bab al-Rahma building on Jerusalem's Temple Mount.

>>Read more: Why Israel and Jordan are clashing over the Temple Mount | Explained

Sheikh Abdel-Azeem Salhab, who is considered one of Jerusalem's leading religious figures, was taken from his home in the early morning. The council's deputy head, Sheikh Najeh Bkeirat, was also arrested for allowing Palestinian worshipers into the Temple Mount building.

A Waqf official told Haaretz that Salhab's arrest is extremely unusual. "He's the most senior Jordanian figure in the [Palestinian] territories. Twenty years ago, if the police wanted to interrogate the mufti, they would call and invite him, but coming to a 75-year-old's home like that at 5 A.M. is unacceptable."

Jordan's Islamic Affairs and Holy Places Minister Abdel Naser Abu Elbasal vehemently condemned Salhab's arrest, calling it a "serious escalation." He said Israel is "playing with fire," urging authorities to release the two officials and refrain from arresting others, which he said compromises Jordan's position as custodian of Jerusalem's holy sites.

Muslims are seen praying inside the Bab al-Rahma, a building inside the Golden Gate near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, February 24, 2019.

The Foreign Ministry said "such Israeli provocative measures are categorically rejected by Jordan." Spokesman Soufian Qudah added: "Such unilateral actions to Jerusalem's holy shrines are null and void and will only create further tension."

Salhab and Bkeirat's attorney said senior Jordanian diplomats are working with their Israeli counterparts and with other international parties to ensure their release. He added the arrests indicate "hysteria" on the part of Israel, who "crossed red lines."

The two senior officials are both suspected of opening Bab al-Rahma to worshipers. Police closed off the site, which is inside the Golden Gate, in 2003, saying that the Islamic heritage association that operated there had been associated with Hamas.

The Waqf, however, wants the area reopened, arguing that the heritage association has long since been disbanded, after its members were arrested. Police in Jerusalem oppose reopening the site.

In a rare move, the Waqf called on Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to intervene in Israel Police’s decision to keep Bab al-Rahma shut.

Salhab and Bkeirat's arrest come after clashes broke out on Friday when hundreds of Palestinians broke into Bab al-Rahma. Israeli police forces arrested 60 East Jerusalem residents in their homes on Thursday night on suspicions of incitement and rioting ahead of the Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque.

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