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How one of Jerusalem’s holiest sites became the center of a deadly crisis

The crisis at the Temple Mount continued over the weekend. A fragile resolution was reached late Monday evening.

Clashes Break Out During Noon Prayer Outside Al Aqsa Mosque In Jerusalem Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

A fight over a holy patch of ground in the center of the Old City of Jerusalem has triggered violence, political chaos, and religious strife. And now, despite a fragile truce, the situation still threatens to spiral further out of control.

The dispute began July 14 when a pair of Israeli police officers were shot and killed near the al-Aqsa Mosque, in the area known as the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif, one of the holiest places in the world for both Muslims and Jews. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu temporarily shut down all access to the site and installed metal detectors that anyone hoping to pray there would need to pass through. (Only Muslims are permitted to pray on the Temple Mount, by law, though non-Muslims may visit.)

The problem is that Israel made the moves without consulting the Muslim authorities who control access to the site, sparking protests and deadly violence across the region. The Waqf, the Muslim custodians of the site, called for Muslims to pray outside of the metal detectors — and essentially boycott prayer on the Temple Mount — until the dispute was resolved.

On Monday, late in the evening Jerusalem time, Netanyahu’s government finally agreed to remove the metal detectors and find a different type of security measure.

It may have been too late, with the fight over access to the Temple Mount now spreading to both Jordan and Turkey, two of Israel’s closest allies in the Muslim world. The latest blow came Tuesday, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of trying to take control of the Temple Mount and upend the status quo.

“Everyone who knows Israel is aware that restrictions on al-Aqsa mosque are not due to safety concerns,” he said, speaking to parliamentarians in Ankara.

Erdogan added a call for all Muslims to head to Jerusalem.

“Come, let’s all protect Jerusalem,” he also said.

The Muslim custodians of the site also expressed dismay at the Israeli government’s compromise proposal of a separate but still technological security measure. They called for Muslims to continue to boycott the site until they had a chance to assess the new recommendations.

Netanyahu’s metal detectors, in other words, had touched the third rail of Israeli politics: the very fragile 50-year-old status quo agreement that gives authorities from each of the world’s three monotheistic religions control over Jerusalem’s holy spaces.

Here’s how we got so close to the precipice, and why the situation is still not entirely under control.

Violence triggered more violence. Then things got even worse.

Anger swept the Muslim world after Israel installed the metal detectors, with protests extending all the way to Ankara and Amman.

In East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the tensions turned into actual bloodshed. On Friday, three Palestinians, including two teenagers, were reported shot dead during massive protests. At least 200 more were wounded across the region.

Also on Friday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced he was breaking off all diplomatic relations with Israel — including crucial conversations on security coordination — in protest over the new security measures on the Temple Mount.

Israel also paid a heavy human price. Friday night, three Israelis — including a 36-year-old father of five — were stabbed to death in their home as they sat down to a Sabbath meal. The Israeli army released photos of a room drenched in blood. Thousands attended their funeral on Sunday.

In a Facebook post shared widely in the Israeli press, the assailant, 19-year-old Omar al-Abed, wrote, “I am young, not even 20 years old. I had many dreams and aspirations. But what life is this in which our women and our young are murdered without any justification? They are desecrating the Aqsa Mosque and we are sleeping.” Abed was shot and apprehended after the terror attack.

The violence soon spread to neighboring Jordan, where on Sunday a handyman attacked an Israeli security guard at a residence on the Israeli embassy compound in the capital of Amman. The guard shot and killed both his would-be assailant and a bystander.

While it wasn’t immediately clear if the attacker acted because of the Temple Mount controversy, the incident came in the wake of widespread protests in Amman over the crisis. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, it wasn’t clear if the Jordanians would let the guard out of the country. Israel, for its part, refused to turn over the guard, claiming diplomatic immunity.

By Monday morning, diplomats were zigzagging their way across the Middle East, trying to find a way to defuse the escalating tensions. Jason Greenblatt, the Trump administration’s special envoy for the Middle East, arrived in Israel Monday morning and was set to also visit Amman. Israel sent its own envoy to Jordan to smooth things over with the Hashemite Kingdom’s government.

Netanyahu, for his part, spoke by phone with Jordanian King Abdullah. The king underscored the importance of removing the metal detectors.

“The king stressed that a quick solution should be found and to dismantle what caused the ongoing Temple Mount crisis, restoring the situation that existed before the crisis' outbreak and to fully reopen the al-Aqsa Mosque,” read a statement from the Jordanian leadership, according to a report in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. “The king added that an agreement should be reached on arrangements that will prevent a recurrence of such escalations in the future while respecting the status quo of the Temple Mount.”

In the end, Netanyahu’s security cabinet recommended the removal of the metal detectors, and Jordan agreed to send home embassy officials — who had been trapped on embassy grounds for 24 hours — rather than detain them.

Netanyahu’s critics say the prime minister should have known any moves near the Temple Mount could quickly lead to protests or actual violence.

“Bottom line is that Bibi [Netanyahu] had plenty of warning from his own security people that this wasn't simply a security matter,” says Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

Metal detectors at the Temple Mount became about more than security

The metal detectors at the center of the current controversy were installed last week to screen would-be worshipers trying to ascend to the al-Aqsa Mosque plaza for prayer.

As I explained on Friday, practical day-to-day control of, and access to, the specific holy sites of Jerusalem rests in the hands of each faith’s own religious authorities. That means that when the Israeli government unilaterally imposes new security measures — even things like metal detectors that might seem relatively minor — it can spark widespread resentment and anger.

Criticism didn’t just come from the Palestinians. On July 19, less than a week after the metal detectors were installed, officials from the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security organization, and the Israeli military pressed for their removal. Over the weekend, high-level Israeli police officers, speaking anonymously, told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that the move to install metal detectors was “careless.” The newspaper noted police leaders had not been properly consulted in advance.

A seemingly minor security question had, as a result, become a referendum on access to holy sites in Jerusalem specifically and Israeli control of the city more generally.

“Threats, real or perceived, to sacred space are what sets the region aflame,” Friedman says.

The current controversy doesn’t seem likely to escalate into a broader conflagration, but the underlying issues remain just as explosive — and just as unresolved. That means a new round of violence may just be a matter of time.