Local groups mount protests over security at holy site

Protest Demonstration

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

The protests related to the Israeli government’s security efforts at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem reached St. Louis on Sunday.

Several hundred people gathered on Delmar Boulevard in University City to speak out against what an organizer said is Israel’s “heavy-handed response” after three Arab-Israelis shot and killed two Israeli police officers earlier this month. They were met with counter-protesters.

The Israeli Security Cabinet temporarily closed the site, considered one of the holiest for Jews and Muslims. It then installed metal detectors and introduced other security restrictions. Muslim worshippers then organized a prayer service outside of the gates and said they would not enter as long as the detectors remained. On Tuesday, the Security Cabinet decided to remove metal detectors and security cameras and announced that it would institute new technologies known as “smart checks” and sensitive security cameras, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Some Muslims had rioted in parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank in response to the added security. The Israeli government responded with crowd control tactics such as water cannons and tear gas.

At least five Palestinians have been killed in clashes with Israeli security forces, according to JTA. Also, three members of an Israeli family were killed by a Palestinian assailant in a West Bank settlement, Halamish, during a Shabbat dinner.

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In St. Louis, pro-Israel activists heard about the scheduled protest — which was organized by members of Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR), among other groups— and staged a counter-protest one block west on Delmar. 

“It’s important to stand up and make sure another view is heard — especially in situations where they are trying to blame Israel for something they are not at fault for,” said Stuart Klamen, a member of St. Louis Friends of Israel, which organized the counter-protest that attracted about 50 people. 

“There is a lot of demonization of Israel, and one can feel however they want to about Israel but it doesn’t mean that everything that goes on is Israel’s fault,” Klamen added.

But the director of the Missouri chapter of CAIR, who described the killing of the Israeli police officers as a “heinous act,” said the local protest was about more than just the metal detectors. He pointed to the Israeli police’s decision to temporarily ban male Muslim worshippers under the age of 50 to pray at the site. Such moves “increase the level of anger for Muslims who feel that Israel is continuing to encroach on their land and on their religion,” said Faizan Syed, who helped organize the protest alongside members of groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that promotes the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

“What started as three deranged lunatics” — the Arab-Israelis who shot the police officers — “has now resulted in people all over the world protesting in the streets, and that’s why we have to be very careful” in how police respond “especially when it comes to holy sites in Jerusalem,” said Syed, who has participated in interfaith efforts with the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Klamen said he trusts that if Israeli officials felt the need to temporarily shut down the site, then it was necessary “to make sure an incident like that would not occur again.” 

And as to the decision to remove the detectors, there have been news reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to take them down in order to get Jordan, which oversees the holy site, to allow an Israeli security guard to return to Israel. The guard had been stabbed and then shot and killed his assailant and a bystander who was hit by a stray bullet. 

Klamen said he also trusts Israel on this decision.

Syed said he sees the removal of the detectors as a “positive development,” but he believes that Palestinians could still see the cameras as a “symbol of the occupation.”

“Our goal is to diminish the tensions,” Syed said.

Leaders of both St. Louis demonstrations said they wanted to put distance between each other to ensure that the protests were peaceful. No incidents were reported here.