The latest round of violence in the region erupted nine days ago when three Israeli Arabs carried out an attack at the Temple Mount, shooting dead two border policemen. The assailants, both from the northern town of Umm al-Fahm, entered the compound through the Lions Gate, the entryway designated for Muslim worshippers, with guns hidden under their clothing, and shot the border policemen from behind. Israeli police responded by closing down the compound and canceling prayers that day. Twenty-four hours later, just before setting off for a five-day trip to France and Hungary, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered metal detectors installed at the site, at the recommendation of Israel Police, as a security measure to prevent similar attacks.
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As an act of civil protest, Palestinian worshippers refused to step through the metal detectors, and over the course of the following week, held their prayers outside the Temple Mount compound instead. Muslims hold their main weekly prayer service on Friday, and as that day approached, pressure mounted on the government to renege and take down the metal detectors. The government resisted the pressure, and as anticipated, clashes erupted following the service between Palestinian protestors and Israeli security forces. Three Palestinians were killed in these clashes, and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian, responded by announcing that he was suspending cooperation with Israel.
On Friday night, a Palestinian terrorist infiltrated the West Bank of settlement of Halamish, where he stabbed to death a grandfather and his two adult children during their Shabbat dinner. The assailant was shot and injured by a next-door neighbor, an off-duty soldier. On Sunday, Israel installed surveillance cameras at Lions Gate and said they were meant to complement – not replace – the metal detectors.
Why would the installation of metal detectors be so controversial?
Indeed, metal detectors can be found virtually everywhere in Israel, whether it’s at the entrance to a mall or at the entrance to Jerusalem’s Western Wall. For Israelis, they are viewed as a required safety precaution and certainly nothing out of the ordinary – especially at a site that is prone to violent clashes. The Palestinians, however, were taken aback by the move, first of all, because the decision was taken unilaterally without consulting either with their leadership or with the Waqf, the Islamic religious trust responsible for the Temple Mount. Even worse, they saw it as an attempt by Israel to assert control over this ultra-sensitive holy site and upset the delicate status quo that prevails there.
But wait. Doesn’t Israel control the Temple Mount?
Yes and no. Although it was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War, the Temple Mount enjoys a unique status. Israel controls all the entrance to the site, but the compound itself is administered by the Waqf. The Temple Mount, also known by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, is the site of the Al-Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest Muslim sites, and the Dome of the Rock. It is believed in Jewish tradition to be the site of the inner sanctuary of the two ancient temples. Under Israeli law, non-Muslims are prohibited from praying at the site. Various right-wing Israeli politicians and organizations, however, have been campaigning to allow Jews the right to pray at this most sacred of Jewish sites. Non-Muslims enter the Temple Mount from a separate entry and visiting hours for them are subject to restrictions.
With the Temple Mount such a well-known flashpoint, didn’t Israeli leaders understand that violent clashes were inevitable?
Clearly some did. Soon after the metal detectors were installed, it emerged that both the army and the Shin Bet secret service had advised against the move, warning that it could unleash a new and dangerous wave of violence in the West Bank. How adamantly they made these warnings known, however, is subject to dispute.
Now that Israel understands what trouble these metal detectors are causing, why doesn’t it simply back down?
At this point, it is a matter of honor and ego for both sides. If Israel removes the metal detectors, it will be seen as caving into Palestinian pressure, and even worse, to terror. Netanyahu also fears that his political adversaries on the right will skewer him if he shows any signs of capitulating. For the Palestinians as well, it has become a matter of principle not to pass through machines. That means that right now neither side is budging.
So does that mean the metal detectors are here to stay?
Most probably not. Some compromise deal will have to be formulated that allows Israel to get out of this mess without losing face. That presumably is what Netanyahu has been discussing with Arab leaders in recent days. The fact that Israel installed new surveillance cameras near the Lions Gate on Sunday probably means that things will get worse before they get better.