What's the Problem With Metal Detectors in Jerusalem?

How a seemingly simple measure sparked a crisis

Amir Cohen / Reuters

Updated on July 24 at 6:33 p.m. ET

Of all the issues involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, none is more sensitive than the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital. But the delicate status quo surrounding the holy city has been threatened in recent weeks following the installation of new security measures at the entrance of the Old City’s holy compound, culminating in the biggest crisis the site has seen in years.

It started with metal detectors. Two days after a July 14th incident in which two Israeli policeman were fatally shot by three Palestinian citizens of Israel outside the compound—known as the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims and the Temple Mount to Jews—Israel installed new security cameras and metal detectors at its entrances. Though metal detectors have long been used at the compound’s entrances for non-Muslims, they’ve never been used at the entrances for Muslim worshippers.

The installation of the metal detectors prompted immediate backlash from Palestinian leaders, who characterized the move as a violation of sovereignty rather than one aimed at security. It also resulted in widespread protests throughout the city, with thousands of people opting to pray on the streets surrounding the Old City rather than pass through the metal detectors to get to Al Aqsa mosque, which stands on the compound’s site. Some of the protests turned violent, with clashes between protesters and Israeli authorities resulting in hundreds of injuries and the deaths of at least three Palestinians.

The violence hasn’t been confined to Jerusalem. On Friday, three Israelis were killed in a stabbing attack in the West Bank settlement of Halamish. The assailant, a 20-year-old Palestinian, wrote in a Facebook post he was motivated by the ongoing conflict over access to Al Aqsa. In Jordan, which serves as the custodian of the compound and with whom Israel has a peace treaty, two Jordanians were fatally shot Sunday at the heavily guarded Israeli embassy in Amman after one of the men stabbed an Israeli security guard. Though Jordanian authorities sought to question the embassy guard, Israel had denied Amman’s request, citing diplomatic immunity.

“The accusation from the broader Muslim world in general is that Israel is changing the status quo on the third holiest site in Islam, something that hasn't been done, broadly speaking, since gaining control over Jerusalem in 1967,” Grant Rumley, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told me. Since the capture and annexation of East Jerusalem following the 1967 war (a move that has never been internationally recognized), Israel has allowed the Waqf, an Islamic trust, to administer the site in coordination with Jordan. By unilaterally installing metal detectors and imposing restrictions on access to the holy site, Palestinian and Muslim leaders say Israel is violating long-standing agreements over how the site should be governed. The Arab League, which announced it will hold an emergency meeting in Cairo this week to address the situation, accused Israel of attempting “to impose a new reality on the Holy city,” adding that “Jerusalem is a red line that Muslims and Arabs cannot allow to be crossed.”

Though members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition doubled down on the installation of the metal detectors as being in both the country’s national and security interest, opposition leaders criticized the decision as running counter to recommendations by both the IDF, Israel’s military, and the Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency. “The State of Israel fell into the trap laid for them by the terrorists to change our conflict with the Palestinians to a religious conflict between Islam and us,” Omer Bar-Lev, a Israeli parliamentarian of the center-left Zionist Union party, said.

But perhaps the most significant reaction thus far has been Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to suspend ties with Israel, including the Palestinian Authority’s security cooperation. “They don’t have the right to place the [metal detectors] at the gates to the Al Aqsa mosque, because sovereignty over the blessed Al Aqsa mosque is our right,” Abbas said Sunday, adding: “This decision we took to stop all kinds of coordination, whether security or otherwise, is not easy at all. But [the Israelis] have to act and know that they are the ones who will inevitably lose, because we are doing a very important duty in protecting our security and theirs.”

The Israeli government hasn’t shown signs of yielding to Abbas’s ultimatum, but Rumley said they may not have to. “Security coordination is vital for Abbas, in many ways his fate is tied to it,” he said. “Once the situation dies down and stabilizes I expect coordination to resume quietly.” But coordination could also resume another way. According to a report by the Times of Israel Monday, an emerging deal between Israeli and Jordanian officials could result in Israel removing the metal detectors in exchange for Jordan allowing the Israeli guard involved in the embassy shooting to return to Israel. Emmanuel Nahshon, Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman, has since confirmed the country’s Jordanian embassy staff returned to Israel. Hours later, Israeli officials announced they would remove the metal detectors, though no mention was made of the security cameras.