The adoption of new control measures by the Israeli government under the guise of national security at the mosque of Al-Aqsa came as a shock for thousands of Palestinians that were present for their customary noon prayers. At the same time, protests leading to conflict between Palestinians and Israeli armed forces quickly emerged and the international community is rightly worried about the repercussions these measures may cause.
The measures came as a response to an incident of gun battle near the mosque which led to the death of three Palestinians and two Israeli police officers. In an unforeseen manner, Israeli forces arrested the Muslim religious leader of Jerusalem and placed metal detectors in the entrance of the mosque. Reasonably, access to the mosque through these metal detectors is severely obstructed. Entrance to the mosque is already a time-consuming process, especially during Ramadan, and it is expected that the installation of metal detectors will practically render entrance to the mosque impossible for the majority of Palestinians.
This measure follows a series of other restrictive measures that have been implemented by Israeli forces in the past. Through a separation wall, Israel effectively divides the West Bank from Jerusalem. Furthermore, a significant portion of the population residing in the West Bank is denied access to the mosque since men under the age of 45 are excluded. In theory, applying for a permit of access is possible, however the reality is that most men are denied access to the mosque due to security considerations.
The main concern with the installation of these metal detectors from the Palestinian community is that the Israeli government is attempting to alter the status quo of the mosque from a holy place to a place of restricted movement in order to ensure national security. Apart from the expected indignation of Palestinians to another demonstration of repression, denial of fundamental rights and collective punishment on behalf of the Israeli state, it is reasonable to question the legitimacy of these measures under international human rights law. Is the installation of metal detectors a proportionate measure in regards to the desired objective? What rights are at stake for the Palestinians and how does this measure affect their enjoyment? Are the means employed for the objective of national security necessary or could other less intrusive and less restrictive means could be assumed? Perhaps these measures restrict the fundamental rights of Palestinians to an unacceptable extent?
In order to address things separately, the adoption of these metal detectors obstructs the enjoyment of separate fundamental rights protected by UN human rights treaties. At first, freedom of religion and freedom of worship is substantially obstructed. Additionally, the use of metal detectors denies freedom of movement as well. On the other hand, the metal detectors are considered necessary (according to Israeli authorities) in order to maintain national security.
In human rights law methodology, freedom of religion and freedom of worship are rights of immense normative value. This signifies that these rights protect some constant and important interests of human individuals and deserve a strong protection against abuse and violations. Additionally, freedom of worship and religion shall in general prevail when conflict-related circumstances arise.
Certainly, situations where freedom of religion, freedom of worship and freedom of movement are restricted in order to achieve a higher end exist; however, the circumstances and conditions that allow for such restrictions are assessed ad hoc by the competent authorities. Moreover, even when restrictions are considered legitimate in order to achieve a higher purpose such as the purpose of security or general interest, it has to be ensured that these measures are proportionate in regards to the restrictions they impose on the enjoyment of a certain right.
Back to the case of Jerusalem, Israeli authorities decided to place metal detectors in order to ensure national security and avoid the repetition of gun battle incidents. On the other hand, the use of metal detectors substantially hinders the access of Palestinians to a holy place of worship, denying them a fundamental aspect of their freedom of religion. As mentioned earlier when strong justifications exist, fundamental rights such as freedom of religion may be restricted. Therefore, claiming national security reasons for this obstruction is a legitimate cause. However, from a human rights law perspective the problem lies in the proportionality of the measure. At first, through these metal detectors, freedom of worship is not merely restricted but entirely denied for thousands of individuals. This reality contradicts the principle of proportionality that demands the adoption of analogous means in the pursuit of an objective. Denying freedom of worship to thousands of Palestinians due to an incident of gun battle likens more to a form of collective punishment and demonstration of authority than a reasonable, proportionate and necessary measure in a democratic, open and just society. Although security is a wholly legitimate and absolutely necessary purpose, less restrictive measures that would not deny freedom of worship in its totality shall be examined.
In conclusion, the adoption of metal detectors in the mosque of Al-Aqsa should be considered unlawful under international law. An equilibrium should be attained between legitimate concerns of national security and the fundamental freedom of religion. In the instance of Al-Aqsa, an equilibrium that will on the one hand ensure that incidents of gun battle will not be repeated again next to holy places while on the other hand preserving certain substantial aspects of the fundamental right of worship for Palestinians.