JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel overnight removed all security infrastructure it had put in place this month at Muslim entrances to the Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, stepping up its efforts to diffuse political and religious tension.
The government had already dismantled metal detectors it installed in the area after the killing of two Israeli policemen on July 14, hoping the move would calm 10 days of often-violent protests that have put the city on edge.
But separate security measures, including closed-circuit cameras and low metal gates, were left in place, angering Palestinian leaders and the population, who have threatened a “day of rage” on Friday. Most Muslims have avoided entering the compound in the past two weeks, praying instead in the streets.
The stand-off at the holy site - known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount - has provoked some of the worst bloodshed in Jerusalem for years, with peace efforts having stagnated since 2014.
Israeli forces have killed four Palestinians in fighting in the cramped streets of East Jerusalem in the last week, and a Palestinian stabbed three Israelis to death in their home.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for calm, saying there was the risk of an explosion of violence. Tensions around the holy site have led to long periods of unrest in the past, including the second Palestinian uprising or Intifada, which left thousands dead from 2000 to 2004.
“I am particularly concerned about the potential risk of escalating violence, urge all political, religious and community leaders to refrain from provocative action and rhetoric, and call on Israel to demonstrate restraint,” Guterres said.
Amateur video shot overnight showed Israeli contractors dismantling gantries put up to hold security cameras and using forklift trucks to take away metal barriers from the marbled Lion’s Gate entrance to the mosque compound.
Witnesses said all the security devices had been removed and crowds of Palestinians gathered in the early hours to celebrate. Police spokeswoman Luba Samri confirmed the removal.
“Everything that was installed after the attack (the killing of the two police officers) was taken down overnight,” she said.
Muslim and political leaders were meeting to discuss the situation and determine whether they are satisfied.
The Waqf, the Jordanian-backed religious trust that administers the holy site, had declared its approval after Israel removed the metal detectors earlier in the week, but that did not reassure the public or political leaders.
It remains unclear, therefore, whether the Waqf’s backing this time - if granted - will be sufficient to defray the tensions and restore calm.
The dispute, like many in the Holy Land, is about more than security devices, taking in issues of sovereignty, religious freedom, occupation and Palestinian nationalism.
The Noble Sanctuary contains the Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam, and the golden Dome of the Rock. For Jews, the area is the site of two ancient temples, the second one destroyed by the Romans, and the holiest place in Judaism.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City and the holy compound, in the 1967 Middle East war. It annexed the area and declared it part of its “indivisible capital”.
That has never been recognized internationally, with the United Nations and others regarding East Jerusalem as occupied by Israel and maintain that the status of the city can only be determined through negotiations between the parties.
Palestinians do not recognize Israel’s authority in East Jerusalem, which they want as the capital of a future Palestinian state, and are extremely sensitive to the presence of Israeli security forces in and around the Noble Sanctuary.
When Israel installed the metal detectors it was seen as a fundamental change to long-standing security and access arrangements, referred to as the status quo, one of the most incendiary issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has accused Israel of damaging Jerusalem’s “Islamic character”, prompting a furious response from the Israeli foreign ministry, which accused the Turkish government of brutally repressing its Kurdish minority and of stifling democracy.