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Proposed Cameras At Jerusalem Shrine Put The Focus On Mutual Mistrust

Palestinian shoppers walk near Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, under the watchful eye of Israeli police and wall-mounted security cameras. Amid the recent violence, there's talk of placing cameras inside the city's most contested religious site, known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Al-Aqsa mosque compound to Muslims.
Palestinian shoppers walk near Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, under the watchful eye of Israeli police and wall-mounted security cameras. Amid the recent violence, there's talk of placing cameras inside the city's most contested religious site, known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Al-Aqsa mosque compound to Muslims.

Israel already uses surveillance cameras to peer into the Temple Mount, as it is called by Jews, or the Al-Aqsa mosque, as it is commonly referred to by Muslims. But no cameras are actually inside the Old City compound, and no footage is shared between Israeli security agencies and the Muslim religious authority that runs the site sacred to both faiths.

Now a project is underway to change that, putting 24-hour surveillance cameras in the compound and, at some point, streaming video from there onto the Internet.

This is the one tangible step made public after Secretary of State John Kerry's diplomatic efforts last week to ease rising Palestinian-Israel violence. Since Oct. 1 , more than 60 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces. Israel says in over half those cases, police or soldiers shot Palestinians who had or who had attempted to attack Israelis. In the same period, 11 Israeli Jews have been killed by Palestinians.

Central to this rise in violence have been Muslim fears that Israel aims to change the unwritten understandings that govern access to the site, informally called the "status quo."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denies this is the case, and last week described the status quo this way: "Muslims pray at the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount."

The Temple Mount is where the two ancient Jewish temples stood before they were destroyed. It's the holiest site in Judaism. The mosque, the third holiest place in Islam, was built on the same spot in the seventh century.

The Israeli leader has endorsed the cameras idea, which has been floating around for a while, according to longtime observers, and proposed this time by King Abdullah II of Jordan.

Jordan's monarch holds historic, formal responsibility for the Al-Aqsa compound. Both Israel and Jordan say they are going ahead with coordination meetings to decide where the cameras go and how the footage will be handled.

The screen room inside an Israeli police station. Feeds from the more than 330 cameras currently installed throughout the Old City are monitored here.
Emily Harris / NPR
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The screen room inside an Israeli police station. Feeds from the more than 330 cameras currently installed throughout the Old City are monitored here.

A Sensitive Decision

On the ground, skeptics abound.

One is Ami Meitav. A 55-year-old retired Israeli intelligence officer, Meitav used to be the Shin Bet internal security coordinator for Jerusalem's Old City. Now he helps smooth the way for the city government to implement projects, especially in the Muslim Quarter.

He can hardly take a step in the Old City — on its crowded shopping lanes, or quiet residential paths — without someone stopping to greet, or to complain to him, in Hebrew or in Arabic.

Meitav points out security cameras that lace the stone walls and vaulted arches of the Old City. Outside the Al-Aqsa compound more than 330 cameras constantly run.

Meitav would love to see cameras inside the Temple Mount as well. The few that survey it now from afar can't see everywhere, he says, and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces happen periodically inside.

But he says cameras in Al-Aqsa can't be forced on Muslims, and despite Jordan's endorsement, he expects local opposition will ultimately derail the plan.

"It's not going to happen. Because no Muslim will agree," he says. "I think not one camera will be put inside."

Everyone entering the Temple Mount is already scrutinized by Israeli police. At one entry for Muslims only, three surveillance cameras watch each approach. Police officers check, and hold, the ID of anyone they wish.

Ami Meitav, a former Israeli intelligence officer and now a tour guide, looks at a map of Jerusalem's Old City as he sits near one of the entrances. He would like to see cameras at the religious site, but believes Muslim religious authorities will oppose the plan.
/ Daniella Cheslow for NPR
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Ami Meitav, a former Israeli intelligence officer and now a tour guide, looks at a map of Jerusalem's Old City as he sits near one of the entrances. He would like to see cameras at the religious site, but believes Muslim religious authorities will oppose the plan.

Broader Consequences

Israeli police captain Moshe Zrien says they pay particular attention to anything happening inside the compound.

"A simple event here in the Temple Mount can lead to a diplomatic crisis, to war, to disturbances in other states, other Islamic states and of course here as well," he said at the site where police monitor Old City video footage.

In the last weeks of violence, including stabbings and shootings inside the Old City walls, video has played a significant role.

Images of Palestinian stabbing attacks, Israeli shootings and clashes between groups of stone-throwing Palestinians and rifle-wielding Israeli soldiers have been shared widely on both sides — and interpreted very differently.

The idea of putting cameras in the most contested site in this conflict is to provide one set of uncontestable footage, and thus, facts.

Enter another skeptic. Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer and an expert on Jerusalem issues, says such an outcome is unlikely. In the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he says, "perceptions trump facts," and suspicions are "immune to evidence."

"I can see Netanyahu sitting in his office here in Jerusalem and watching the footage coming in from the Mount and say, 'Hey, we're maintaining the status quo,'" Seidemann says in an interview in his downtown high-rise office. "And I can see King Abdullah sitting in the royal palace in Amman, seeing the same footage, and saying, 'Hey, these guys are acting contrary to decorum in a very provocative way.' "

Israeli police stand guard as Palestinians protest in  Jerusalem's Old City on Sept. 17.
Mahmoud Illean / AP
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Israeli police stand guard as Palestinians protest in Jerusalem's Old City on Sept. 17.

Looking For Evidence

Israel has made clear it believes cameras will show that Palestinians are provoking confrontations in the compound. Some Muslims expect cameras could prove that religious Jews, including government ministers, are violating the status quo by visiting in large groups and praying.

Sheik Azzam Tamimi heads the Jerusalem office of the Waqf, the Jordanian religious agency that runs Al-Aqsa. From the Waqf offices next to Al-Aqsa's Bab an-Nazir, or Inspector Gate, he fiercely claims that only his organization will decide where cameras might go.

"We will not allow the Israeli police, or the Israeli security agencies to have any kind of relation or any intervention in the putting of these cameras. This is a task done, decided upon and implemented by the Waqf. "

Even if cameras are installed, and the footage live streamed for all to see, regular Jewish visitor Yitzchak Reuven expects tensions on the Temple Mount will continue. He is the deputy director of the Temple Institute, which promotes Jewish visits to the site and ultimately hopes to see a Jewish house of worship built there.

Reuven acknowledges some Jews do pray covertly, despite strict instructions from Israeli police not to bow their heads, move their lips or sway. He doubts cameras will change that. He says visiting Jews are already surrounded by Israeli police and watched closely by vigilant Palestinians.

"Their job is specifically to watch us, watch our lips, and as soon as somebody even looks like they're praying, they point, they tell the policeman he's praying, and the policeman takes you off the Temple Mount."

He doesn't expect that close watch to change if cameras are installed, but any exchange there would be open to review and interpretation by anyone who cared to see.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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