To ease tension, more cameras at mosque
Kerry says vigilance at al-Aqsa will increase visibility, transparency
AMMAN, JORDAN — Israel and Jordan have agreed to take steps aimed at quelling a wave of violence, starting with the installation of security cameras on the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Saturday.
Speaking after meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah II, Kerry told reporters that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had agreed to King Abdullah’s suggestion to install the 24-hour cameras at the holy site, which has been a focus of long-standing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
“This will provide comprehensive visibility and transparency,” Kerry said. “It could be a gamechanger in discouraging anybody from disturbing the sanctity of the holy sites.”
However, it is unclear exactly how the proposed addition of more cameras would lessen tensions or change the situation in any meaningful way. Israeli authorities already operate more than 300 security cameras in the flash-point area, offering 24hour monitoring capability.
There was no immediate comment on the proposal from the prime minister’s office, even though Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, together with Kerry, said Netanyahu would speak on the issue Saturday night.
Judeh said Netanyahu would repeat Israel’s often-stated commitment to maintain the status quo, an unwritten agreement by which non-Muslims are allowed to visit the mosque compound but are not allowed to pray there. Saturday is Shabbat in Israel, and even though it ends at nightfall, Netanyahu rarely makes public speeches on Saturday night. There was no indication he would speak on the proposal before Sunday.
Israeli media, however, reported that Israel was pleased with the proposal, because it would prove the government has done nothing to change the status quo.
Kerry characterized the security cameras as the “first step,” designed to calm a combustible situation before Israelis and Palestinians can begin to address other issues.
Judeh said that tensions will quiet only when Israelis and Palestinians begin to tackle the source of the conflict.
“The root cause is the need to have a Palestinian state, living side by side with Israel,” he said.
Technicians from Israel and Jordan, which is the custodian of the mosque complex under its 1994 peace treaty with Israel, will meet in the coming days to discuss security on the site, including the camera installation, Kerry said.
The cameras were the first practical sign that diplomats had made some headway in trying to quell a month of almost daily violence in Israel and the West Bank, fueled in part by rumors that Israel was trying to encroach on a cherished Muslim holy site that is also revered by Jews. Netanyahu has labeled the rumors “lies.”
In talks Thursday with the Israeli leader and Saturday with the Palestinian and Jordanian leaders, Kerry sought to encourage more moderate rhetoric and greater “clarity” on what the status quo means to each side, diminishing the chance of misunderstandings.
But some Palestinian officials are skeptical that Kerry’s efforts will bring quiet to the region.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official and former negotiator, called on Kerry to pressure Israel to end its occupation of territories out of which Palestinians aspire to carve an independent state.
“It’s not just about dealing with symptoms,” she said. “Let’s deal with the causes, and then that’s how you can have stability and security.”
Ashrawi said most Palestinians feel that they cannot rely on Washington to act as an impartial mediator.
“The American monopoly on attempts to launch peace initiatives has only enabled Israel, because the U.S. totally supports Israel,” she said.
Palestinian discontent that many years of negotiations have failed to bring about a state of Palestine has boiled over in recent weeks. Ten Israelis have been killed, most in stabbings by young Palestinians. About 50 Palestinians have been killed, half of whom Israel said were attackers.
Even as Kerry was involved in talks in Amman, the violence continued. Israeli authorities reported more attacks Saturday by Palestinian assailants in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
One attempted stabbing near the northern West Bank city of Jenin resulted in Israeli security personnel shooting dead the Palestinian assailant, Israel’s military said. The man attacked Israeli security guards at the al-Jalama checkpoint that connects the occupied West Bank with Israel, the military said.
Local media also reported that Israeli police were searching for a Palestinian man who tried to stab an Israeli in East Jerusalem.
Many of the recent attacks have been carried out by apparent lone-wolf assailants who are young and appear to have no ties to Palestinian political factions. The apparent random nature of the violence may complicate efforts by Palestinian leaders to impose calm.
The burst of attacks, however, has shown signs of tapering off in recent days. Even as Palestinian factions called for a “day of rage” on Friday, there were mostly scenes of calm in Jerusalem’s Old City. Thousands of Palestinian worshipers prayed Friday without incident at the al-Aqsa Mosque, which has been at the center of the recent unrest. Israeli authorities eased restrictions on age and gender for worshipers at the mosque, which is Islam’s third-holiest shrine.
But many diplomats remain concerned that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could spiral out of control and spread through the region. The concern is particularly acute in Jordan, where more than half the population is of Palestinian origin.
Kerry met Friday in Vienna with other representatives of the so-called Quartet of Middle East peace mediators. The group, which includes Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to exercise “maximum restraint” and avoid provocative rhetoric to calm the situation. They also called for steps that would restore hope in a negotiated two-state solution “that resolves the final status issues, including that of Jerusalem and ends the occupation that began in 1967.”
Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed that inflammatory rhetoric has heightened tensions, but each blames the other side for sowing fear and discord.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, left, speaks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after their meeting in Amman, Jordan.