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Israel to replace contested Al-Aqsa metal detectors with ‘smart’ surveillance

July 25, 2017 11:03 A.M. (Updated: July 26, 2017 10:20 A.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- The Israeli security cabinet decided during a meeting late on Monday night to remove metal detectors, which had recently been installed at the entrances of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, only to replace them with more advanced surveillance technology in the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem.

Israeli authorities installed metal detectors, turnstiles, and additional security cameras in the compound following a deadly shooting attack at Al-Aqsa on July 14 -- sparking protests from Palestinians, who said the move was the latest example of Israeli authorities using Israeli-Palestinian violence as a means of furthering control over important sites in the occupied Palestinian territory and normalizing repressive measures against Palestinians.

In a statement, the security cabinet said it had “accepted the recommendation of all of the security bodies to incorporate security measures based on advanced technologies ("smart checks") and other measures instead of metal detectors in order to ensure the security of visitors and worshipers in the Old City and on the Temple Mount” -- using the Israeli term for the Al-Aqsa compound.

Later Tuesday evening, an Israeli police spokesperson released a photo showing that the metal detectors had been removed.
Metal detectors removed from outside Al-Aqsa Mosque (Israeli police spokesperson)

Religious leaders in Jerusalem held a meeting on Tuesday to discuss the new Israeli plan, as Islamic endowment (Waqf) official Sheikh Raed Daana told Ma'an on Monday that both religious leaders and the Palestinians wouldn’t accept any changes to the status quo.

Following the meeting, Waqf Council chairman Sheikh Abd al-Athim Salhab said that the Waqf would issue a report evaluating the overall situation in and around the Al-Aqsa compound before deciding whether to resume prayers inside Al-Aqsa or to continue demonstrations.

The plan will reportedly take up to six months to implement, and cost an estimated 100 million shekels ($28 million).

In the meantime, the cabinet said that Israeli police forces’ increased presence in the Old City would be maintained, adding that the plan could include hiring additional officers “in accordance with the recommendation of the police.”

According to Israeli news outlet Ynet, the new security measures include the installation “smart cameras” capable of facial recognition and heat-sensing technology to detect possible weapons or explosives.

During the weekly Palestinian Authority (PA) meeting on Tuesday, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah held Israel responsible, as the occupying force, for tampering with the fragile status quo at Al-Aqsa and attempting to erase Jerusalem’s Palestinian identity.

Hamdallah called the Israeli security measures “unacceptable,” and maintained that Israeli authorities should restore the status quo prior to the July 14 attack, adding that the PA had allocated $25 million to support Palestinian “citizens, merchants, and organizations in Jerusalem.”

The announcements came as Israeli engineers were seen taking measurements outside of Al-Aqsa’s Council Gate on Monday, as Israeli forces installed new barriers at Lions’ Gate to delimit queues leading to the metal detectors -- in what had been seen as a sign that Israeli authorities were considering keeping them in place.

Israeli authorities had already installed smart cameras -- which are able to recognize faces -- X-ray security scanners, and additional metal detectors on Sunday.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld nonetheless claimed in a statement on Tuesday that "the Israel police does not use any type of camera that harms privacy in any way," adding that security measures taken by Israeli police were "done while maintaining full respect for the public and its privacy, whether the people are worshipers, passerby, or let alone women."

Despite the Israeli security cabinet touting the technology as a new development, Jerusalemites have said that facial recognition cameras were already present in the Old City.

"It's not about technology, it's about control," a resident of Jerusalem told Ma'an. "It's about who controls the gate of the mosque, which means who controls the mosque."

While the man, who asked to remain unidentified, said that some Jerusalemites saw the removal of metal detectors as an "improvement in a way," many continued to boycott entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Tuesday.

Jamal Zahalqa, a member of the Knesset and a leader of the Joint List representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, told Ma’an that the removal of the metal detectors was one victory amid a larger struggle in East Jerusalem, and that Palestinians would continue to refuse to enter Al-Aqsa until Israel pulled back all of its measures at the holy site.

“(Israeli Prime Minister) Mr. Netanyahu has carried out a provocative action and caused hardship with the metal detectors, and now the so-called smart cameras are a new provocation,” he said. “Al-Aqsa should be under full control of the Waqf, Israel has no right to control the entrance.”

“The removal of the metal detectors is a victory for the young people of Jerusalem and for the religious leadership. We proved that we could get it done,” Zahalqa said.

“Now we have a new confrontation, and we don’t intend to withdraw,” the MK said, adding that recent threats by Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman against his party, Balad, would “not cause us to change our views.”

Witnesses told Ma'an that they saw trucks and small excavators bringing "special equipment" into the Old City and remove metal detectors at the Lions' Gate, Chain Gate, Council Gate, and Iron Gate to the Al-Aqsa compound.

Excavators were seen removing soil and rocks and pulling out several trees in a courtyard outside of Lions’ Gate.

The metal lanes installed at the Lions' Gate had yet to be removed, although an Israeli officer told Ma'an that they would be taken out, without providing a specific timeframe.

Meanwhile, Ynet stated that surveillance cameras that had been installed earlier this month would remain in place until the new measures are implemented.

As earlier reports had conjectured that Israeli authorities might choose to remove the metal detectors in exchange for securing the return of an Israeli security guard to Israel after he shot and killed two Jordanians on Sunday, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied that such an agreement had taken place, The Times of Israel said.

Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem launched a civil disobedience campaign in the city in protest of increased Israeli security measures at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, refusing to go through the metal detectors and praying instead in the streets outside of Al-Aqsa.

According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, at least 1,090 Palestinians had been injured since July 14 during demonstrations which were violently repressed by Israeli forces across the occupied Palestinian territory. According to Ma’an documentation, 11 Palestinians and five Israelis have been killed since July 14.

On Sunday, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov warned of the broader repercussions a sustained crisis in Jerusalem could have.

“Jerusalem is perhaps one of the most critical cities in the world. It is an emotionally, religiously and historically charged place for billions of people,” Mladenov said in front of the UN Security Council during an emergency session on the developments at Al-Aqsa.

“Nobody should be mistaken that these events can be localized,” he added. “In fact, they may be taking place over a couple of hundreds square meters in Jerusalem, but they affect hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people around the world. They have the potential to have catastrophic costs well beyond the walls of the old city, well beyond Israel and Palestine, well beyond the Middle East itself.”

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