Palestinians were set to return to pray at a sensitive Jerusalem holy site on Thursday after Israeli authorities removed controversial new security measures, 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 on Thursday afternoon after Israel removed remaining new security measures.
The compound includes the revered Al-Aqsa mosque and the golden-topped 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 on Thursday a meeting would be held on whether to lift it.
Midday prayers were again held outside the compound, with officials saying preparations had to be made for worshippers to return to it for afternoon prayers at around 4:30 pm (1330 GMT).
Before the midday prayer, there were celebrations with hundreds of people clapping and singing.
It became quiet later as the prayer time approached, with worshippers spreading out prayer mats on the ground.
Standoff nears end?
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.
Police said on Thursday morning that all new security measures had now been removed.
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.
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 erupted in the days after 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.
Jordan is the custodian of Muslim holy sites at the compound, and King Abdullah II had called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to remove the security measures.
Information Minister Mohammad al-Momani on Thursday welcomed their removal, calling it an “essential step towards calm.”
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.