Israeli police have shot and killed a Palestinian man suspected of trying to kill a hardline Jewish activist in Jerusalem, an incident that threatened to ignite simmering tensions in the city.
Jerusalem has seen near-daily clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police, particularly around a contested site in the Old City that is holy to Jews and Muslims.
Last night a gunman on a motorcycle shot and seriously wounded US-born activist Yehuda Glick outside a conference promoting greater Jewish access to the hilltop compound, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
The gunman approached Mr Glick and spoke to him in “heavy Arabic-accented Hebrew”, according to Moshe Feiglin, a lawmaker with the Likud party. Once he confirmed Mr Glick’s identity, the man opened fire at point-blank range, shooting him three times before fleeing the scene.
Mr Glick, a well-known advocate for greater Jewish access to the site, remains in serious condition in hospital.
Earlier this week he had warned of the growing violence in Jerusalem and said Jews were increasingly being attacked by Muslims.
“The more extreme Islamist organisations are taking over and if we don’t stop them early enough, they will take over the entire Jerusalem,” he said. “We’re calling upon the Israeli government, stop the violence.”
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police surrounded the suspect’s home in east Jerusalem early today. The suspect was holed up in a house in the Arab side of Abu Tor, a mixed neighbourhood. He then opened fire and troops responded and killed the man, identified as Moataz Hijazi, an Islamic militant recently released from prison who worked at a nearby restaurant.
Shortly afterwards, clashes broke out in Abu Tor, with Palestinians hurling stones at riot police, who responded with rubber bullets. Residents gathered on rooftops chanting pro-Palestinian slogans while police set up checkpoints to control access in and out of the neighbourhood.
The Temple Mount has been a flashpoint for violence in recent months and has been fraught with clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police. Police today took the unusual step of temporarily closing access to the site to calm tensions.
Israel maintains that it allows free prayer to all, but Palestinians claim it is unilaterally widening access to accommodate larger numbers of Jewish worshippers. The Palestinians see this as Jewish encroachment on the site, the holiest in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam, while Jewish activists like Mr Glick say they are being discriminated against by limiting their chances to pray on the mount.
Israel accuses Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas of inciting violence. He has recently called for Jews to be banned from the site and urged Palestinians to guard the compound from visiting Jews, who he called a “herd of cattle”.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “The international community must stop its hypocrisy and act against the inciters.”
Defence minister Moshe Yaalon reiterated accusations against Mr Abbas.
“The assassination attempt of Yehuda Glick is another serious step in the Palestinian incitement against Jews and against the state of Israel,” Mr Yaalon said. “When Abu Mazen (Mr Abbas) spreads lies and venom about the rights of Jews to worship in their land the result is terror, as we saw yesterday.”
Mr Abbas did not condemn the shooting of Mr Glick but lashed out at Israel for closing the volatile site, calling it a “declaration of war” against Palestinians and the entire Arab and Muslim world.
“Jerusalem and its Muslim and Christian holy sites are a red line that must not be touched,” he said. “This unprecedented decision is dangerous and challenging and will lead to further escalation and instability, and will create a dangerous and negative atmosphere.”
Israeli authorities later said they had decided to reopen a key Jerusalem holy site for Muslim worshippers tomorrow.
Israel blocked access to the Al Aqsa Mosque compound after clashes erupted following the killing of Hijazi. It was the first time Israel has closed the site since 2000.
In a statement, police said that Muslim men over the age of 50 and women of all ages could attend weekly prayers.
Palestinians had condemned the closure as a “declaration of war”.