Israel under pressure over toughest security at holy site

Israel faced mounting pressure Monday over tougher security at a sensitive Jerusalem holy site after a shooting at its embassy in Jordan raised further concerns following a weekend of deadly unrest.

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It was not immediately clear whether the incident in Amman on Sunday — in which two Jordanian men were killed and an Israeli seriously injured — was linked to the dispute over the Jerusalem compound.

But it came after new security measures were implemented at the Haram al-Sharif mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, prompting violence that left eight people dead, with fears of further unrest.

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Israeli officials signalled they may be open to relaxing security measures at the holy site after metal detectors were installed at entrances following an attack that killed two policemen.

The UN Security Council will hold closed-door talks Monday about the spiralling violence.

Israel and Jordan are bound by a 1994 peace treaty, but tensions have been high over the new security measures at the site in annexed east Jerusalem.

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Jordan is the official custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

The metal detectors remained in place on Sunday, though cameras had also been mounted near at least one entrance to the compound in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Tensions have risen following the July 14 attack that killed two policemen.

Israeli authorities say the attackers smuggled guns into the site and emerged from it to shoot the officers.

– Security assessments –

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Palestinians view the tougher security measures as Israel asserting further control over the site. They have refused to enter the compound in protest and have prayed in the streets outside.

“Since the start of the events, I have held a series of assessments with security elements including those in the field,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting.

“We are receiving from them an up-to-date picture of the situation, as well as recommendations for action, and we will decide accordingly.”

Israeli Major General Yoav Mordechai — head of COGAT, the defence ministry agency responsible for civilian affairs in the Palestinian territories — signalled that changes to the policy were possible.

“We are examining other options and alternatives that will ensure security,” Mordecai said in an interview with Al-Jazeera.

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Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who has announced he was freezing contacts with Israel over the dispute, said Sunday this included the security coordination that has been credited with preventing wider unrest in recent years.

“They must know that they will be the main losers because we play an important role in assuring our security and theirs,” Abbas said.

Friday’s main weekly Muslim prayers — which typically draw thousands to the holy site — brought the situation to a boil.

In anticipation of protests, Israel barred men under 50 from entering the Old City for prayers.

Clashes broke out between Israeli security forces and Palestinians around the Old City, in other parts of annexed east Jerusalem and in the occupied West Bank, leaving three Palestinians dead.

– House set for demolition –

On Friday evening, a Palestinian broke into a home in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank during a Sabbath dinner and stabbed four Israelis, killing three.

The Israeli army said the 19-year-old Palestinian had spoken in a Facebook post of the holy site and of dying as a martyr.

On Saturday, Palestinian youths hurled stones and petrol bombs as the army used a bulldozer to close off the attacker’s West Bank village and prepare his house for demolition.

Netanyahu said Sunday the demolition would go ahead “as soon as possible”.

Israel frequently razes or seals attackers’ homes as a deterrent, although rights groups say this amounts to collective punishment.

Clashes also flared in east Jerusalem and other Palestinian villages in the West Bank near Jerusalem on Saturday, police said.

Two Palestinians died, including one when a petrol bomb exploded prematurely.

Israeli security forces said Sunday they had arrested 25 men active in the militant Hamas group that rules the Gaza Strip.

– Rocket fired from Gaza –

Also Sunday, a rocket fired at Israel from Gaza hit an open area, the army said, causing no injuries. No group claimed the attack.

The holy site in Jerusalem has served as a rallying cry for Palestinians.

In 2000, then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the compound helped ignite the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which lasted more than four years.

The Haram la-Sharif/Temple Mount was seized by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.

Considered the third holiest site in Islam, it is the most sacred for Jews.