Three Palestinian assailants opened fire on Israeli police from inside a major Jerusalem holy site on Friday, gravely wounding two officers before being shot dead, police said. The officers later died.
The rare attack from within the contested site, revered by both Muslims and Jews, raised new concerns about an escalation of violence. Police identified the attackers as Arab citizens of Israel.
The sacred compound sits at the fault line of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has triggered major confrontations in the past.
After the attack, Israel closed the site – known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount – for further weapons sweeps.
The closure, also something that rarely happens, meant a cancellation of noon prayers, which typically draw tens of thousands of Muslims from Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank to the compound on Fridays.
Unable to reach the shrine, some of the faithful performed prayers in the streets near Jerusalem’s walled Old City and then dispersed quietly.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly tried to allay Muslim fears, saying that the status quo at the Muslim-administered site “will be preserved.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said that “we cannot allow for agents of murder who desecrate the name of God, to drag us into a bloody war.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reached out to Netanyahu in a phone call, highlighting the concern about a possible escalation. The leaders have almost no direct contact.
Abbas condemned the attack and said he rejects “any violence from any party, particularly at holy sites,” said the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.
The sacred compound, popular with tourists, is the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest in Islam, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. It forms the centerpiece of rival Israel and Palestinian national narratives and has been a scene of repeated confrontations.
Friday’s shooting was the latest in a wave of Palestinian attacks that erupted in 2015, in part over tensions at the Jerusalem holy site. Involvement by Arab Israelis in such attacks has also been rare.
Israeli police chief Roni Alsheikh said the weapons used in Friday’s attack had been brought into the holy compound.
The attackers opened fire on the Israeli officers from inside the site, he said.
In response, “a police force charged at the terrorists, killed two and wounded the third,” he said. The wounded assailant used a knife to attack an officer checking him for explosives and was killed, the police chief said.
Alsheikh said such an attack is “without precedent” at the holy site and an “incident of the highest severity.”
Amateur video broadcast on Israeli TV stations showed a few seconds of what appeared to be part of the chase in the compound.
In the video, several people – only visible as dark figures in the footage shot from a distance – were running inside the compound. A man who had dropped to the ground suddenly jumps up and lunges at one of the officers before he is shot.
Israel has previously accused Palestinians of stockpiling rocks and fireworks in one of the mosques in the compound, for use in confrontations with Israeli security forces. In some cases, Palestinians in the compound have also thrown stones at Jewish worshippers at the nearby Western Wall, a remnant of one of the biblical Jewish Temples.
Israeli security forces have stormed the compound several times in the past, firing tear gas and stun grenades to disperse Palestinian stone throwers.
The top Muslim cleric of the Holy Land, Mohammed Hussein, was detained by police several hours after the shooting, according to his son. Omar Hussein said his father, who is based at the shrine, was taken to a police station in the Old City.
Police declined to comment.
Meanwhile, a relative said Friday’s three assailants were from the Jabareen clan – two 19-year-olds and a 29-year-old. They were devout Muslims and frequently visited the shrine, traveling to Jerusalem by bus from their homes in northern Israel, the relative said.
The younger men belonged to a kick-boxing club and the older one was unemployed because of health problems, relative Yehiyeh Jabareen told The Associated Press. He said clan members are in shock over the shooting.
Jabareen confirmed the authenticity of a pre-attack post on the Facebook page of one of the younger attackers. A photo shows him and the older man posing at the shrine. The younger man sports a half-smile.
The photo caption reads: “God willing, tomorrow’s smile will be more beautiful.”
The two slain policemen were members of Israel’s Druze community, followers of a secretive off-shoot of Islam. Unlike the majority of their fellow Arabs in Israel, many Druze serve in the Israeli security forces.
Staff Sgt. Maj. Kamil Shnaan, one of the slain officers, was a son of Shachiv Shnaan, a former member of parliament for the Labor Party, Israeli media said.
In other violence Friday, Palestinian medical officials said an 18-year-old Palestinian was killed in clashes with soldiers near the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
The Israeli military said troops opened fire after Palestinians hurled explosives and blocks at them.
In the past two years, Palestinians have killed 45 Israelis, two visiting Americans and a British tourist in stabbings, shootings and attacks using cars to ram into Israeli civilians and troops.
During that period, Israeli forces have killed more than 254 Palestinians, most of them said by Israel to be attackers while others were killed in clashes with Israeli forces.
Israel blames the violence on incitement by Palestinian political and religious leaders compounded on social media sites that glorify violence and encourage attacks.
Palestinians say the attacks are triggered by anger over decades of Israeli occupation of territories they claim for their future state.
The Jerusalem shrine has been the scene of repeated confrontations.
In September 2000, then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon made a demonstrative visit to the site to show Israeli presence, sparking Palestinian protests that quickly escalated into armed clashes between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers.
The incident was one of the triggers of an armed Palestinian uprising, including suicide bombings targeting civilians, that claimed several thousand victims, most of them Palestinians, and only began to ebb in 2005.
In 1996, the opening of an Israeli archaeological tunnel alongside the Western Wall also sparked Palestinian protests that escalated into clashes, claiming several dozen lives.
Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh and Karin Laub in the West Bank contributed to this report.
Source: Associated Press