The protesters at al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem managed to get controversial security measures removed from the mosque, and prevented a prolonged, more dangerous confrontation. But the peace is fragile.

A lawyer wearing his official robes kicks a tear gas canister back toward Israeli soldiers during a demonstration by scores of Palestinian lawyers called for by the Palestinian Bar Association in solidarity with protesters at the Al-Aqsa mosque.
A lawyer wearing his official robes kicks a tear gas canister back toward Israeli soldiers during a demonstration by scores of Palestinian lawyers called for by the Palestinian Bar Association in solidarity with protesters at the Al-Aqsa mosque.

The mood in East Jerusalem, for the first time in years, was jubilant. Israel had already removed the metal detectors and surveillance cameras installed outside the Al Aqsa mosque after the July 14 shooting that killed two police officers in the Old City.

On Wednesday night, workers dismantled the final bits of new security—a few metal railings and the mounts on which the cameras were installed. Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets to celebrate with prayers and fireworks.

By noon on Thursday, the Waqf, the Muslim body that oversees the mosque, had declared victory and urged worshippers to return. "The situation at Al-Aqsa has returned to what it was before," said Muhammad Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem. "We will go pray there."

It was a welcome end to a crisis that has already killed eight people. The Waqf's decision will likely avert major protests scheduled for Friday, the Muslim holy day. But it was also a worrisome reminder of how fragile the situation is in Israel and the Palestinian territories—especially when religion enters the conflict, as it increasingly does.

As usual, the bloodshed drew much of the attention. Five Palestinians were killed, and hundreds more wounded, in several days of clashes with Israeli security forces. Three Israelis were also killed by a knife-wielding Palestinian who snuck into their home in Halamish, a settlement in the occupied West Bank; the teenaged attacker said he was "answering the call of Al-Aqsa."

But all of this obscured a largely peaceful and well-organised protest movement led by the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, a group that is often marginalised.

The Palestinian Authority—ironically—has no authority in the city, while the Israeli government often neglects the area's residents, most of whom are not Israeli citizens. Four out of five East Jerusalemites live in poverty, in neighbourhoods with poor basic services; they have little political power. Yet thousands of them turned out for daily protests over the new security measures in Jerusalem. The mosque compound is a resonant issue for East Jerusalem's Palestinians, one of the few places in the city where they have sovereignty.

It was a rare mobilisation. But the Israelis, on their side, were also dug in for a fight. Last week security officials urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to remove the metal detectors. They were worried about possible unrest across Israel and the West Bank. Netanyahu, ever fearful of offending his right-wing base, ignored their recommendations as recently as Sunday.

The mosque compound is the holiest site in Judaism, known as the Temple Mount; though Jews may visit, they are forbidden to pray. The prohibition, imposed by the Israeli government, rankles the right-wing: they view it as discriminatory, and a reminder that Israel does not have full sovereignty over its "eternal, undivided capital." So Netanyahu tried to distance himself from the whole affair, abdicating responsibility for the situation and putting the security arrangements in the hands of the police.

He only reversed course after a worker at Israel's embassy in Amman stabbed a security guard with a screwdriver. The guard then opened fire, killing both his assailant and an innocent bystander, a Jordanian doctor who was the building's landlord. Israel said the guard was covered by diplomatic immunity, but the police (and the victims' relatives) called for an investigation. He was allowed to leave the kingdom 24 hours later, as part of a wider deal that also brought down the metal detectors in Jerusalem.

It was an obvious move for Netanyahu. Jordan is a key regional ally, and one of only two Arab countries that has a peace treaty with Israel. But it was also a costly one. A poll broadcast on Channel 2 found that 77 percent of Israelis opposed removing the metal detectors and two-thirds thought he was handling the crisis poorly. Lawmakers from his coalition called it a "mistake," "unfortunate," and "a surrender."

He was even attacked on the cover of Israel Hayom, a free daily newspaper funded by the American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson that often serves as the prime minister's mouthpiece. (Israel's Soviet-born defense minister has likened it to the Communist-era Pravda.) It almost never criticises Netanyahu—at least until Wednesday, when the front-page headline read, "Removing the metal detectors: A demonstration of Netanyahu's helplessness."

For a leader already reeling from a raft of scandals, and whose security credentials are arguably his only selling point to voters, the past two weeks were damaging.

Mahmoud Abbas, for his part, was mostly irrelevant. The Palestinian president announced a few measures meant to show solidarity with the protesters: he suspended contacts with Israel, and called for mass demonstrations on Friday. But these were reactive, an effort to piggyback off the protests in Jerusalem; nobody looked to Abbas for direction.

Apart from Jordan, the Arab world was invisible, too: foreign ministers gathered in Cairo for an "emergency" Arab League meeting on Thursday afternoon—hours after the crisis was resolved. The key moments over the past two weeks were driven not by political leaders but by a trio of young gunmen; thousands of protesters; and a teenager carrying a screwdriver.

All of this was a microcosm of the broader situation here. Both Netanyahu and Abbas, in their own ways, have settled into the same familiar routine: "managing the conflict," obsessing over domestic political rivals, searching for ways to prolong their lengthy reigns. The status quo suits them. But events have a way of interfering.