Control over footage sparks fresh row at Jerusalem’s holy site

Israeli security forces pat down a Palestinian man atone of the main entrances to Jerusalem. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Israeli security forces pat down a Palestinian man atone of the main entrances to Jerusalem. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Video surveillance of Jerusalem’s holiest site was meant to be a quick fix to lower tensions that have driven months of Israeli-Palestinian violence, but disputes over who controls the footage and what the cameras may or may not film are holding up the project.

Underlying the arguments is a fundamental disagreement over who is in charge of the 37-acre walled hilltop shrine, which is central to the competing narratives of Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims and Jews. This rivalry is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has repeatedly sparked violence.

“There is no gimmick to solve this,” said Daniel Seidemann, an expert on Jerusalem affairs and advocate for coexistence. “No mechanism, whether it’s a procedure, a camera, a technique, whatever, can survive the bad faith of the parties.”

Any delay in defusing tensions is potentially costly. Major Jewish holidays are typically a time of heightened friction, bringing larger numbers of Jewish visitors to the Muslim-run site, and the next Jewish holiday, Passover, is just two months away.

Jordan, the custodian of the shrine, says the camera project is progressing, but that it’s still in the phase of technical preparations.

The latest round of violence at the site known to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount erupted in September. Clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces led to unrest elsewhere in Jerusalem, across Israel and in the West Bank.

US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the video surveillance plan during an October visit to Jordan, which administers the Haram as-Sharif, Islam’s third holiest site and home of the Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques.

Details were to be worked out between the Israelis and the Jordanians, and officials suggested the cameras would be installed in a matter of weeks. But major sticking points quickly emerged.

Israel wants surveillance inside, arguing that this would expose Palestinians hoarding stones in the mosque for clashes with Israeli security forces. Jordan wants the cameras to only show the outdoor areas. Jordan’s king said in November that “there will be no cameras inside the mosque.” He gave no reason, but Palestinians have said they fear Israel will use the footage to spy on activists.

Footage of the outdoor areas could potentially expose violations by Jewish visitors, who under existing arrangements are allowed to visit the site, but not to pray there.