JERUSALEM, July 23 (Reuters) - Israel said on Sunday it would not remove metal detectors whose installation outside a major Jerusalem mosque has triggered the bloodiest clashes with the Palestinians in years, but could eventually reduce their use.
Fueling fears of an escalation, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would halt security ties with Israel until it scraps the walk-through gates installed at entrances to Al-Aqsa mosque plaza after two police guards were shot dead on July 14.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due to convene his security cabinet at 7.30 p.m. (1630 GMT) to weigh alternatives.
However, his right-wing government is wary of being seen to yield to Palestinian pressure over the site, which Jews revere as the vestige of their two ancient temples and which was among areas of East Jerusalem that Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed as its capital in a move not recognized internationally.
“They (metal detectors) will remain. The murderers will never tell us how to search the murderers,” Tzachi Hanegbi, Israeli minister for regional development, told Army Radio.
“If they (Palestinians) do not want to enter the mosque, then let them not enter the mosque.”
Incensed at what they perceive as a violation of delicate decades-old access arrangements at Islam’s third-holiest site, many Palestinians have refused to go through the metal detectors, holding street prayers and often violent protests.
Israeli security forces shot three demonstrators dead on Friday, Palestinian medics said. Police said they were investigating the charge. A fourth Jerusalem-area Palestinian was killed on Saturday when an explosive device he was building went off prematurely, the Israeli military said. Palestinian medics said he died of shrapnel wounds to the chest and abdomen.
In a sign unrest was spreading, a Palestinian stabbed three Israelis in the occupied West Bank on Friday after vowing on Facebook to take up his knife and heed “Al-Aqsa’s call.” On Sunday, a rocket was launched into Israel from the Gaza Strip but hit an open area, causing no damage, Israel’s military said.
Gilad Erdan, Israel’s public security minister, warned of potential “large-scale volatility” - a prospect made more likely in the West Bank by the absence of Abbas’s help.
“If Israel wants security coordination to be resumed they have to withdraw those measures,” Abbas said in a speech on Sunday, referring to the metal detectors. “They should know that they will eventually lose, because we have been making it our solemn duty to keep up security on our side here and on theirs.”
Erdan said Israel may eventually do away with metal-detector checks for Muslims entering the Al-Aqsa compounds under alternative arrangements under review. Such arrangements could include reinforcing Israeli police at the entrances and introducing CCTV cameras with facial-recognition technologies.
“There are, after all, many worshippers whom the police know, regulars, and very elderly people and so on, and it recommended that we avoid putting all of these through metal detectors,” Erdan told Army Radio, suggesting that only potential trouble-makers might be subjected to extra screening.
Any such substitute arrangement was not ready, he added.
However, the Muslim authorities that oversee Al-Aqsa said they would continue to oppose any new Israeli-imposed measures.
“We stress our absolute rejection of ... all measures by the Occupation (Israel) that would change the historical and religious status in Jerusalem and its sacred sites,” the Palestinian grand mufti, acting Palestinian chief justice and Jordanian-run Waqf religious trust said in a joint statement.
Jordan and Turkey, among Israel’s few Muslim interlocutors, have urged the removal of the metal detectors. The Arab League said on Sunday that Israel was “playing with fire.” The U.N. Security Council scheduled a session on the crisis for Monday.
“We are managing this in a level-headed, determined and responsible way,” Netanyahu said in televised remarks before his weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Gareth Jones)