Early Friday morning, three Arab citizens of Israel attacked Israeli police on the Temple Mount, killing two. This led Israeli security forces to close Jerusalem’s holiest site for Jews and Muslims, sparking outrage as Muslims intended to worship there on their holy day, Friday.
“We cannot allow for agents of murder, who desecrate the name of God, to drag us into a bloody war, and we will deal with a heavy hand against all the arms of terror, and its perpetrators,” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said in a statement. “The state of Israel will defend its sovereignty and its citizens with a strong hand, and will not allow anyone to provoke the region into a bloody war.”
A video of the scene captured an assailant yelling “Allahu Akbar!”
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Israeli police said the armed attackers had been spotted around 7 a.m. local time approaching the gateway from within the sacred compound which Jews revere as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, The New York Times reported. Police pursued the assailants inside the compound and both groups opened fire, killing two police and three assailants.
Police identified the slain officers as Hayil Satawi, 30, from the northern Israeli Arab town of Maghar, and Kamil Shnaan, 22, from another northern town, Hurfeish. Officials said both officers were Druze, members of an Islamic sect which most Muslims consider outside of Islam.
Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, identified the attackers as Muhammad Ahmed Jabarin, 29; Muhammad Hamid Jabarin, 19; and Muhammad Ahmed Mufdal Jabarin, 19. All three were residents of Umm el-Fahm, a large Arab town near the border of Israel and the West Bank. It was not known if they were related, but their names indicate membership in the same large clan.
Police announced they had evacuated and closed the compound, and helicopters circled above after the attack.
The closing of the Temple Mount is an explosive measure on its own, however. This marked the first time in 17 years that the mosque was closed for Friday prayers. Israeli restrictions on Muslim entry have prompted rioting in Palestinian areas, and previous Israeli efforts taken in response to violence at the site have strained relations with Jordan.
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, reportedly called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and condemned the attack. But he also called on Netanyahu to reopen the holy site.
Fatah, the Palestinian movement Abbas leads, called on Twitter and Facebook for Palestinians to protest the closure of the Temple Mount by turning out in large numbers to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in defiance of Israel’s decision to close it.
Fatah’s Facebook post twisted the story, attacking “successive episodes of killing the Palestinian man in cold blood.”
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Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, grand mufti of Jerusalem, was detained along with another cleric, after telling a Palestinian news site that Israeli forces prevented him from entering the Aqsa Mosque Friday morning.
“We insist on reaching Al Aqsa Mosque and performing prayers there,” Hussein declared. “The occupation preventing us from praying marks an assault against our right to worship in this pure Islamic mosque.”
Israeli police described the attack as “extraordinary and extreme,” adding that “shooting on the Temple Mount is a grave and delicate occurrence, with diplomatic and international significance, and it will be dealt with accordingly.”
Police said the site would remain closed to worshipers until the investigation into the attack is completed. In an effort to head off more criticism, they emphasized that the measures did not signify a long-term change to the status quo at the contested holy site.
They also publicly posted an image of the weapons found at the site: two automatic weapons, a handgun, and at least one knife. Police said other officers were searching to make sure no other weapons were being stored at the Temple Mount.
2 רובי קרל גוסטב ואקדח נתפסו ברשות המחבלים. ישנם מספר פצועים במצב קשה. מפקד המחוז הורה על סגירת הר הבית וכי לא יתקיימו היום תפילות במקום pic.twitter.com/PpcIKSqLvq
— משטרת ישראל (@IL_police) July 14, 2017
The Old City, where the Temple Mount is located, is in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and then annexed, a move never internationally recognized.
The Israeli government has banned Jews from praying on the Temple Mount, to avoid violence. The Jewish religious establishment has warned against Jews entering the site for fear of desecrating the area where the temple once stood. Other activists, however, have argued that prayer there is a civil rights issue.
Last month, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, three Palestinians from the West Bank armed with an improvised submachine gun and knives attacked police officers near the Damascus Gate of the Old City, killing one. The Islamic State (ISIS) took responsibility, although the claim could not be independently verified.
The group has not yet claimed the Friday attack.