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As Israel reopens all gates, worshipers enter Al-Aqsa for first time in nearly two weeks

July 27, 2017 9:55 A.M. (Updated: July 28, 2017 10:45 A.M.)
JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- Israeli forces dismantled security measures installed at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem late on Wednesday night and finally reopened all the gates to the compound on Thursday afternoon, in what was celebrated as a victory by Palestinian Jerusalemites, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian religious leaders said on Thursday that prayers could resume at the compound.

Following worshipers' elation on Wednesday night, tensions had re-emerged on Thursday afternoon after Israeli forces reportedly prevented Al-Aqsa security guards from reopening one of the gates to the compound, as Palestinians said they would continue boycotting the compound until all entrances to Al-Aqsa were opened.

However, the last gate of the compound was opened later in the afternoon, prompting thousands to enter the Al-Aqsa compound for the first time in almost two weeks.

Following a deadly shooting at Al-Aqsa in the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem on July 14, Israeli authorities installed heightened security measures at Al-Aqsa,sparking a widespread civil disobedience campaign among local Palestinians, who have been met with violent repression at the hands of Israeli forces.

Palestinians have said the Israeli 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.

Israel backtracks on security measures as Palestinian leadership greenlights return to Al-Aqsa

The Israeli security cabinet decided on Monday night to remove the recently installed metal detectors at Al-Aqsa, only to replace them with more advanced surveillance technology in the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem -- a move which was denounced by Knesset member and Palestinian citizen of Israel Jamal Zahalqa as “a new provocation.”

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said in a statement on Thursday that the metal detectors and security cameras that had been set up since July 14 “have been removed and dismantled,” adding nonetheless that additional police units were deployed around the Old City.

The decision came after Palestinian factions had called for prayers and protests to take place across the occupied territory on Friday, which would have likely led to further Israeli repression and clashes.

On Wednesday night, hundreds of Palestinians gathered at the compound’s Lions’ Gate after hearing that Israeli forces had removed barricades and scaffolding in the area, rejoicing and chanting until the fajr dawn prayers.

Israeli forces deployed at Lions’ Gate used repressive measures against celebrating worshipers, and attempted to prevent journalists from covering the event, witnesses said.

Eyewitnesses added that Israeli authorities removed at dawn all scaffolding, and barriers at Lion’s Gate and the nearby al-Ghazali Square, transferring them outside of the Old City as thousands of Jerusalemites performed prayers outside the compound.

The worshipers chose to continue praying outside of the compound on Thursday morning, as they have done for nearly two weeks, stressing that they would not enter Al-Aqsa until the Islamic Endowment (Waqf), the religious institution in charge of the compound, issued a final report certifying that all security procedures imposed since July 14 were removed.

“Palestinians have presented martyrs, prisoners and wounded besides daily peaceful protests and prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque’s gates, which all together forced the occupation to take back its decision and procedures taken at Al-Aqsa’s gates,” Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani, the director of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, said prior to a meeting between the Waqf and Abbas.

Following the meeting, Abbas announced that prayers could resume at Al-Aqsa, adding that Israel had removed all recent security material at Al-Aqsa.

"Given what is happening in Jerusalem, we will continue our talks, our search and our vision for the future,” Abbas said. “This means that everything is not over yet."

Abbas had announced on Friday that he was suspending contacts with Israel -- including, allegedly, the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) controversial security coordination policy -- due to the tensions surrounding Al-Aqsa.

Jerusalem religious leaders also confirmed that prayers could resume at Al-Aqsa, calling the removal of the security apparatus a “victory” for Palestinians against Israel’s "void unjust measures."

While Abbas called on Palestinians to return to Al-Aqsa for dhuhr noon prayers, Waqf officials stated that they would re-enter Al-Aqsa for asr afternoon prayers -- set to take place at 4:30 p.m. -- instead.

Religious leaders also called on all mosques in Jerusalem to be closed on Friday and for all Muslim worshipers in the holy city to head to Al-Aqsa.

“The Ministry of Information considers the removal of metal detectors, bridges, and metal barricades from the entrances of the Al-Aqsa Mosque to be the result of the persistence and resistance of Jerusalemites and the support of Palestinians,” the PA ministry said in a statement on Thursday, hailing the protesters and their supporters for “giving a lesson of unity and perseverance.”

Story continues below.

Tensions high before Al-Aqsa's reopening

However, the situation did not appear to be fully resolved as of Thursday afternoon, as Waqf security guards re-entered the compound for the first time in two weeks, only for Israeli police to prevent them from reopening the Gate of Remission (Bab al-Huttah), prompting the Waqf employees to leave the site.

A video of Al-Aqsa security guards chanting as they enter the compound on Thursday for the first time in two weeks.

According to The Times of Israel, Waqf leaders had insisted in a meeting with Israeli police representatives on Wednesday that Israeli forces remove all new security installations at Al-Aqsa and reopen all gates to the compound.

Al-Aqsa security guards told Ma’an that, as they prepared the compound ahead of the planned entrance of worshipers, Israeli officers told them that they could try to open the Remission Gate “in your dreams.”

The guards added that Israeli officers had a list of Al-Aqsa guards who they said would be banned from entering the compound after Thursday.

However, the gate was finally opened in time for asr prayers, as thousands crowded at the entrances of the compound, the third holiest site in Islam.

Meanwhile, Israeli news outlet Arutz Sheva reported on Thursday that Israeli police chief in Jerusalem Yoram Halevy had threatened Palestinian worshipers should they keep up with mass demonstrations.

"If they try to disrupt the order tomorrow, there will be casualties,” Halevy said. “Do not try us. We know how to react vigorously."

Israeli police officers at an entrance to the Al-Aqsa compound on Thursday.

On Wednesday evening, before the security measures were removed, Israeli forces had suppressed thousands of worshipers performing the night-time ishaa prayer outside Lions’ Gate, firing stun grenades and rubber-coated steel bullets at the crowd, and injuring at least four, the Palestinian Red Crescent told Ma’an.

In the span of ten days, four Palestinian demonstrators have been killed by Israelis and more than 1,000 others have been injured, as Israeli NGO B’Tselem accused Israel of displaying “sweeping disregard” for Palestinian lives in East Jerusalem.

Israeli forces have raided Palestinian hospitals, closed off parts of East Jerusalem’s Old City, carried out massive detention campaigns, and violently clashed with Palestinians across East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, leaving Palestinian journalists, medics, and children injured in the process.

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