JERUSALEM -- Prayers passed peacefully at Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site Friday, as Jordan confirmed it was negotiating with Israel to ease mounting tensions after Israel ordered the closure of a building at the sacred compound.
Israeli police were out in force after Palestinian leaders called for mass protests during weekly prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque following a month of simmering hostility over the Israeli closure of a building known as the "Gate of Mercy."
Thousands of worshippers attended noon prayers but dispersed afterward without incident. A Jordanian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed that Jordan — the custodian of the sacred compound — held "intensive talks" with Israeli authorities this week to defuse tensions.
The Waqf, a Jordanian appointed body that oversees Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, has staged periodic prayer-protests since late February to call for the reopening of the shuttered building.
Israel closed the structure in 2003, claiming it was used by a heritage organization with ties to the Hamas militant group.
The Waqf contends that because the heritage group is now defunct, the council should regain full access to the building like any other in the holy esplanade. For the past 16 years, according to Waqf secretary Bassem Abu Labda, the Waqf has unsuccessfully petitioned Israeli authorities to reopen the building.
Last month, when a delegation from Jordan toured the dilapidated hall to inspect water leaks and discuss renovation plans, the Waqf — which has keys to the building — did not clear the building's opening with Israeli authorities for the first time, said Abu Labda.
Israel responded by placing a chain over the door, prompting immediate outrage from Palestinian worshippers. The Waqf has vowed to continue resisting the Israeli closure.
Demonstrations have devolved into standoffs with police. Israel has barred several guards and high-ranking Waqf officials from the compound and arrested dozens of Palestinians under suspicions of inciting violence at the site.
That the closure of one building containing some offices and a small library can spark such a reaction speaks to the sensitivity and potency of the plateau, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The walled compound, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock, is the third-holiest site in Islam and the holiest site of Judaism and has been the source of major confrontations in the past.
With a few exceptions, a tenuous calm has prevailed at the compound, in large part due to intricate security arrangements between Israeli authorities and the Waqf. But any change in the status quo can inflame tensions.
When Israel installed metal detectors at the site in 2017 after a deadly attack by Arab gunmen, mass Palestinian protests erupted, and bloodshed ensued. Muslim leaders across the Arab world accused Israel of encroaching on Islamic rights at the shrine.
"An event like this can be a lightning rod," said Betty Herschman from Ir Amim, an activist group that focuses on Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem, in reference to the Gate of Mercy developments that have spawned fears of a wider confrontation. "It's in everyone's interest to resolve this crisis and protect the entirety of the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary."
This story corrects Bassem Abu Labda's title to secretary, not secretary general, of the Waqf.