Threat of bloodshed remains as mosque dispute slips from radar
A contested site in a divided city, the walled compound in Jerusalem's eastern quarter, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount, is no stranger to violence.
For Muslims across the world, it is home to the glittering Dome of the Rock - one of Jerusalem's most recognisable landmarks - and al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam. For Jews, it stands on what is believed to be the same site as two ancient Jewish temples - one constructed by Herod the Great and later destroyed by the Romans, the other an earlier edifice built by Solomon.
Located on land annexed by Israel in 1967, the Unesco-recognised site has nevertheless been administered since then by a Jordanian-appointed Islamic institution known as the Waqf which oversees visitation rights. Under a compromise agreed by the Israelis, Jews are allowed to visit the site under certain conditions but they are not permitted to pray there. Instead they worship at the Western (or wailing) Wall which is located beneath the elevated compound. What is known as the "status quo" agreement has more or less worked for the last five decades but Palestinian suspicions that Israel seeks to eventually commandeer the site remain, and Israeli right-wingers make no secret of their wish to do so.
During the Israeli occupation of the last 50 years, the complex has taken on a significance far beyond the religious, acting as a potent symbol for Palestinians whether they are Muslim, Christian or secular. The modern history of the site has been marked by standoffs and clashes. In 1990, 20 Palestinians were killed following riots. The blood-stained clothing of the victims can be seen in a small museum there today. Six years later, some 63 people died during protests over the opening of a new tunnel by the Israelis under the Western Wall.
And in the year 2000, what became known as the second intifada was sparked after Israel's then prime minister Ariel Sharon made a provocative visit to the site.
Given the long-standing tensions, violent protests over the past two weeks had raised fears that a third intifada was closer to happening than at any time since the last one wound down 12 years ago. The latest episode was prompted by Israel's installation of metal detectors at the site, which it said was in response to the shooting dead of two Israeli police officers by gunmen who had hidden weapons inside the hallowed compound.
The move - viewed by Palestinians as a further humiliation - was met with violent protests and a boycott by Muslims. A number of killings on both sides were linked to the rising tensions. The head of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, warned Israel was "playing with fire", claiming "no Muslim in the world would accept tarnishing the Al-Aqsa mosque", arguing it would "shift the core of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict from politics to religion".
After much diplomatic pressure, Israel agreed to remove the metal detectors on Thursday, but more than 100 people were injured as worshippers streamed back in and security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to control the crowd.
Fears of further violence remain, but Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa mosque yesterday passed off more smoothly than expected - apart from some brief clashes with some protesters - after Israel restricted entry to the compound to men over the age of 50 and women of all ages.
One striking feature of the two-week episode, however, was how - Arab League statements aside - relatively muted regional and international reactions were. Time was when the twists and turns of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were felt far beyond the lands under dispute. What was known as "the Middle East peace process" was a mainstay of news from the region until the series of uprisings and revolutions that some collectively dubbed 'The Arab Spring' erupted in 2011.
Since then, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has not only slipped down the international news agenda, but shifting alliances and changed dynamics in several regional states have also had an impact. While it may no longer make the headlines it used to, events of the past weeks act as a reminder that grievances underpinning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remain, and with them the potential for violence to erupt again.