JERUSALEM — Israelis and Palestinians dug in over new security measures at a contested Jerusalem shrine after a deadly attack there, as international efforts were underway to try and stave off a major conflagration after Muslim clerics called for mass protests at the site on Friday.
Israel’s public security minister insisted Thursday that the metal detectors were essential to maintaining security, while Palestinians and Muslim religious leaders called for mass protests in the city if they are not removed.
Gilad Erdan told Israel’s Army Radio that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will rule on the issue later in the day after he holds security consultations upon his return from a working visit to Europe.
The Israeli security services are reportedly divided over what to do given the rising tensions surrounding the site. But Erdan rejected Arab accusations that new Israeli measures were an attempt to expand control over the site and insisted they were necessary to carry out proper security checks.
“The Israeli police needs these metal detectors so the security checks can give a proper response to the security considerations,” he said. “I assume there are contacts internationally to try to calm the situation, but in my eyes there is no reason why the situation should not be calm.”
Israeli security forces are on high alert ahead of Friday, the highlight of the Muslim religious week, when tens of thousands of Muslims typically attend prayers in the walled compound in Jerusalem’s Old City. Muslim leaders have called for mass protests if the metal detectors are not moved before then.
Conflicts over the holy site — known as the Temple Mount to Jews and Noble Sanctuary to Muslims — have repeatedly triggered Israeli-Palestinian confrontations. Three Arab gunmen launched an attack from there last week, killing two Israeli policemen at a gate to the Muslim-administered compound.
In response, Israel began installing metal detectors — a security measure it said is used routinely at holy sites around the world.
Hamas called the initial closure a “religious war” and called on followers to attack Israelis.
Muslim clerics have been urging the faithful to skip prayers in neighborhood mosques on Friday and converge on the shrine, in an attempt to draw larger crowds. Worshipers have been asked this week to pray in the streets rather than submit to the new security procedures.
Christian leaders in the Holy Land have expressed “serious concern” over the escalation of violence at the site.
The Heads of Churches in Jerusalem — which includes the leaders of local Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities — issued a statement on the conflict on Wednesday.
“We are worried about any change to historical (Status Quo) situation in al-Aqsa Mosque (Haram ash-Sharif) and its courtyard, and in the holy city of Jerusalem,” the statement reads. “Any threat to its continuity and integrity could easily lead to serious and unpredictable consequences, which would be most unwelcome in the present tense religious climate.”
The “Status Quo” refers to the arrangement guaranteed by the Ottoman government in the 18th and 19th centuries over who controls aspect of seven sites in Jerusalem and two sites in Bethlehem. Seven of these sites are Christian, and responsibility is shared between different Churches, and two — the Western Wall/Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem, and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem — are shared between Jews and Muslims.
Under the Status Quo, even the smallest change to the site must be approved by all the parties, and the unilateral installation of metal detectors could be seen as violating the principle.
Netanyahu, who is in Hungary, held a pair of urgent phone conversations with his security chiefs Wednesday and appears to be under intense international pressure to back down.
Netanyahu said Israel is in close contact with Jordan, the traditional Muslim custodian of the shrine, to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. Jordan’s ruling Hashemite dynasty, with ancestry said to go back to Prophet Muhammad, derives much of its legitimacy from custodianship over the shrine.
The Christian leaders also said they “value the continued custody of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan on al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy places in Jerusalem and the Holy Land which guarantees the right for all Muslims to free access and worship to al-Aqsa Mosque according to the prevailing Status Quo.”
The White House has also called for tensions to be reduced.
The site remained quiet Thursday and Azzam Khatib, the director of the site’s Muslim administration, or Waqf, said he was hopeful an arrangement could be found before the Friday prayers.
“We will never ever accept any changes in the mosque, and Israel has to put an end to this crisis by removing the metal detectors,” he said.
The Christian leaders also renewed their call “that the historical Status Quo governing these sites be fully respected, for the sake of peace and reconciliation to the whole community, and we pray for a just and lasting peace in the whole region and all its peoples.”
Jerusalem resident Ruben Abu Shamsi said the status of the gates posed a “borderline” for tragedy. “I hope the Israeli government will be so wise to avoid the violence,” he said at the site.
Nationalist Israeli politicians have been pressuring Netanyahu from the opposite direction. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, warned of an Israeli “capitulation” that “will damage Israel’s power of deterrence and will endanger the lives of the visitors, the worshipers, and the police officers.”
After last week’s shooting, Israel closed the site for two days for searches. It was only the third closure since Israel captured the shrine, along with east Jerusalem and other territories, in the 1967 Mideast war.
The closure drew wide condemnation from the Muslim world. Israel began opening the site gradually on Sunday.
Jews revere the 37-acre (15-hectare) raised platform as the site of their 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 hilltop 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.
Also on Thursday, the Israeli military said it shot and killed a 26-year-old Palestinian attacker who tried to stab soldiers at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Hebron.
In the past two years, Palestinians have killed 45 Israelis, two visiting Americans and a British tourist in stabbings, shootings and car-ramming attacks. During that period, Israeli forces have killed more than 255 Palestinians, most of them said by Israel to be attackers while others were killed in clashes with Israeli forces.
Israel blames the violence on incitement by Palestinian political and religious leaders to commit attacks. Palestinians say the attacks stem from anger over decades of Israeli occupation of territories they claim for their future state.
Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed from Ramallah, West Bank. Crux staff also contributed to this report.