By Lilach Shoval, Itsik Saban, Associated Press and Israel Hayom Staff—
Following a security assessment Thursday morning, amid escalating tensions at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem, the IDF decided to deploy five battalions comprising hundreds of soldiers to the area to brace for potential violence on Friday.
The decision will be finalized following another situation assessment Friday morning.
The latest friction surrounds the placement of metal detectors at the entrance to the contested Jerusalem shrine following a deadly terrorist attack there last week. Israel maintains that the metal detectors are essential to ensure security, while Muslims oppose the move, claiming it is an Israeli attempt to expand its control over the site.
Mass protests were expected to erupt at the site on 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. Sporadic violent clashes in and around the compound since the introduction of the metal detectors raised concerns of further escalation.
Earlier Thursday, reports suggested that American and Jordanian mediators were stepping in to resolve the crisis. According to the reports, the Americans are seeking a compromise whereby the metal detectors will be removed and instead, security personnel will conduct individual security checks on flagged suspects.
The White House issued a statement Wednesday expressing concern over the latest developments and calling on Israel and the Jordanian administrators overseeing the site to defuse tensions.
“The United States is very concerned about tensions surrounding the Temple Mount/Hamam Al-Sharif, a site holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians,” the statement said. “ call upon the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to make a good faith effort to reduce tensions and to find a solution that assures public safety and the security of the site and maintains the status quo.”
Palestinian sources reported that Israel had been given a Thursday evening deadline to remove the metal detectors. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, currently heading back to the region after cutting his visit to China short, was to convene an emergency consultation upon returning to Ramallah.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled that he did not intend to instruct security forces to remove the metal detectors.
Netanyahu spoke by phone from Hungary Wednesday with Israeli security chiefs about the escalation in Jerusalem and was to hold further consultations after his return to Israel on Thursday.
“There is no change regarding the metal detectors,” Netanyahu told security officials during the phone consultation.
Several thousand Muslims worshippers prayed Wednesday evening in the streets near Lions’ Gate, one of the entrances to the shrine, now fitted with metal detectors.
Muslim clerics on Wednesday urged the faithful to forego prayers in neighborhood mosques in the city on Friday and converge on the shrine, in an attempt to draw larger crowds. Worshippers were instructed to pray in the streets rather than submit to the new security procedures.
Israeli media reported that security chiefs were at odds over the new security measures. Israel’s Shin Bet security service reportedly opposes the metal detectors as counterproductive, while the Israel Police support the new measures.
Netanyahu said Israel was in close contact with Jordan, the traditional Muslim custodian of the shrine. Netanyahu said Jordan wants to “end this as quietly as possible.”
“We expect everyone to help restore calm,” he said.
Netanyahu rejected Muslim allegations that Israel is changing long-standing arrangements at the holy site. “We should look at the facts and the truth — the installation of metal detectors does not constitute any change in the status quo,” he said. “It is only meant to prevent a repeat of an attack with weapons.”
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said the key to restoring calm is to have Israel respect the “historic and legal status” at the shrine, Amman’s state news agency Petra reported.
Safadi told ambassadors from Europe and Asia that ending tensions is in Israel’s hands, adding that Israel should immediately reopen the shrine without any hindrances.
After last week’s shooting attack, in which three Israeli Arabs murdered two Israeli police officers, Israel closed the site for two days for searches. It was only the third time the site was closed since Israel reunited Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War.
The closure drew wide condemnation from the Muslim world. Israel began opening the site gradually on Sunday.