After more than a week of chaos, carnage and intensifying international pressure, Israel announced on Tuesday that metal detectors will be removed from the entrances to the Al Aqsa Mosque. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, had earlier refused to budge on this issue. His about-turn is the result of the discreet but determined diplomatic efforts of King Abdullah of Jordan, the custodian of the sacred site.
Mr Netanyahu’s decision to introduce metal detectors and cameras at the Al Aqsa compound following the killing of two Israeli police officers on July 14 triggered major protests. His argument that the measure would enhance security was immediately discredited by the ensuing violence in which at least six people lost their lives. Israel’s decision to withdraw the metal detectors from the Al Aqsa Mosque is welcome news. But it should not obscure the fact that this is a partial concession rather than a complete turnaround. The security cameras will remain, giving Israel powerful new means of surveillance against Palestinians that it did not possess until two weeks ago. In the guise of reinstating the status quo, Israel has in fact altered it.
This is yet another example Israel’s traditional method of exploiting crises to create new facts on the ground. Israel bulldozes its way into Palestinian areas of life, reshapes them to its advantage and then advertises its subsequent cosmetic compromises to the world as evidence of its self-sacrificing nature. There is no symmetry of power between Palestine and Israel. Yet the Israeli government has had tremendous success in portraying Palestinians as incurably intolerant, and itself as their enlightened victim.
The Al Aqsa Mosque’s status was seen as inviolable. Israel has not only violated it. It has gained invasive monitoring capabilities over people who go to worship there. But Mr Netanyahu’s gains may not last. Palestinian anger has softened as a result of the metal detectors’ removal, but it has not dissipated. The director of the Al Aqsa Mosque, Sheikh Najeh Bakirat, has demanded that cameras be removed from the compound. Ikrema Sabri, the chief of Jerusalem’s Supreme Islamic Committee, has called on Palestinians to stay away from the mosque until a review of the revised Israeli security arrangements is carried out. Palestinians understandably fear that if it is allowed to get away this time, Israel may end up attempting to partition the Al Aqsa Mosque the way it divided the Ibrahami Mosque in Hebron three decades ago.
Jerusalem remains on the edge. Mr Netanyahu did the right thing in heeding King Abdullah and pulling the metal detectors. But he must drop his intransigence and order the removal of the cameras. The old Israeli tactic of creating new facts on the ground whenever the opportunity presents itself may prove to be too costly in this instance. It is within Israel’s power to prevent this. A genuine return to the status quo is all that is needed.