JERUSALEM: Palestinians will return to pray at a sensitive Jerusalem holy site Thursday after Israeli authorities removed controversial security measures there, potentially ending a nearly two-week crisis that sparked deadly unrest.
Muslim authorities announced a boycott of the Haram al-Sharif compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, was to end Thursday afternoon after Israel removed remaining new security measures.
The compound includes the revered Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Palestinians had boycotted it since the security measures were installed following a July 14 attack nearby that killed two policemen.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas joined calls for worshippers to return to the site.
“The prayers will happen, God willing, inside the Al-Aqsa mosque,” Abbas told a press conference.
Abbas announced a freeze on contacts with Israel last week over the dispute, including security coordination, and said Thursday a meeting would be held on whether to lift it.
A tense standoff had been underway between Israel and Muslim worshippers at the holy site for nearly two weeks despite the removal of metal detectors on Tuesday.
Newly installed railings and scaffolding where cameras were previously mounted were also removed early on Thursday from the Haram al-Sharif compound.
Police said Thursday morning that all new security measures had now been removed.
The removal of the installations overnight prompted Palestinian crowds to celebrate in the streets near the site.
Muslims had refused to enter the compound and prayed in the streets outside after Israel installed the new security measures.
Palestinians viewed the move as Israel asserting further control over the compound.
Israeli authorities said the metal detectors were needed because the July 14 attackers smuggled guns into the compound and emerged from it to attack the officers.
Deadly unrest has erupted since the new measures were introduced, with clashes breaking out around the compound and in the occupied West Bank, leaving five Palestinians dead.
A Palestinian also broke into a home in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank last week and stabbed four Israelis, killing three of them.
There had been concerns that Friday’s main weekly Muslim prayers — which typically draw thousands to Al-Aqsa — would lead to serious clashes between protesters and Israeli security forces if a resolution was not found.
Celebrations at site
In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, crowds of Palestinians gathered at the entrance of the site to celebrate the removal of the remaining security installations, with whistling and constant horns from cars.
Young men set off firecrackers as Israeli forces watched closely.
Firas Abasi said he felt like crying over the “victory”.
“For 12 days no one has slept, no one has done anything except the Al-Aqsa mosque,” he said.
Following intensive international diplomacy and warnings of the potential for wider unrest, Israel removed the metal detectors early on Tuesday.
Cameras installed after the attack on the police were also removed.
But Israeli officials said previously they were to be replaced with “advanced technologies” — widely believed to be smart cameras with facial recognition technology.
The remaining installations and suspicions over what new measures Israel was planning had led Palestinian and Muslim leaders to continue to urge a boycott of the site, and worshippers had heeded their call.
It was not immediately clear if Israel would stick to reported plans to install a smart camera system in Jerusalem’s Old City. Cameras are already widespread inside its walls.
The holy compound lies in east Jerusalem, seized by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.
The third-holiest site for Muslims and the most sacred for Jews, it is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has served as a rallying cry for Palestinians.
In 2000, a visit to the compound by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon helped ignite the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.