JERUSALEM — Muslim leaders told the faithful to return to pray inside a major Jerusalem holy site on Thursday after Israel removed security devices it installed outside entrances to the shrine following a deadly Palestinian attack at the compound.
Thousands of Palestinians had been praying in the streets outside the shrine to protest the security measures since the crisis began.
“After extensive discussion and after achieving this victory in this round we call on our people in Jerusalem and inside (Israel) and anyone who can access the Al-Aqsa Mosque to enter ... en masse,” the Islamic leaders declared in a statement.
The head of the Supreme Islamic Committee, Ikrema Sabri, said the first prayers would be held there Thursday afternoon.
Abdel Azim Salhab, of the Waqf, Jordan's religious body that administers the site, said “We call on Imams to close all mosques in Jerusalem Friday in order for all worshippers to pray Friday prayer in Al-Aqsa mosque only.”
Friday prayers are the highlight of the Muslim religious week. Thousands of Muslims from around the country and Palestinian areas typically worship at the holy compound in Jerusalem's Old City.
Slahab said all devices had been removed from the entrances but didn't know if security cameras that had been mounted on the wall of the compound were also dismantled. He said if they are there then “we reject it.”
Israel installed the new security measures earlier this month after Palestinian gunmen shot and killed two police officers from within the site.
It said the security measures were necessary to prevent more attacks and are standard procedure to ensure safety at sites around the world. Palestinians claimed Israel was trying to expand its control over the site.
The issue sparked some of the worst street clashes in years and threatened to draw Israel into conflict with other Arab and Muslim nations.
Palestinians danced, chanted “God is Great” and set off fireworks after some security devices were removed early Thursday morning. It dismantled metal detectors there earlier this week.
Israel removed the devices under intense pressure and said it plans to install sophisticated security cameras instead.
But Palestinian politicians and Muslim clerics had insisted that wasn't enough and demanded Israel restore the situation at the shrine in Jerusalem's Old City to what it was before the July 14 attack.
The fate of the site is an emotional issue at the heart of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Even the smallest perceived change to delicate arrangements pertaining to the site sparks tensions.
Israel's decision to add security measures there outraged Muslim and triggered protests, and low-level clashes have continued in and around Jerusalem in the days since.
The continued standoff highlighted the deep distrust between Israel and the Palestinians when it comes to the holy site.
Jews revere the hilltop compound in Jerusalem's Old City as the Temple Mount, site of the two Jewish 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 site 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.
The latest development could put Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a tough spot as he tries to tamp out a wave of unrest that has triggered international pressure while not appearing to his hard-line base as capitulating.
A senior member of Netanyahu's coalition government criticized Israel's dismantling of the security devices warning it could spell more violence.
Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, told Army Radio that “every time the state of Israel folds in a strategic way we get hit with an Intifada. You seemingly benefit in the short term but in the long term you harm deterrence.”
The Islamic militant group that rules Gaza praised the move. Izzat Risheq, a senior Hamas leader, tweeted that Palestinians achieved a “historic victory.” He said “Today, our people celebrate the removal of the gates (security measures), tomorrow they will celebrate the removal of the occupation itself.”
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