Tensions over Jerusalem’s most hotly contested holy site flared Thursday after a prominent rightist campaigner for Jewish prayer there was shot in an apparent assassination attempt, and police tracked down and killed an Arab they said was the attacker.
American-born Yehuda Glick, 48, who led efforts to allow Jews to pray on the plaza known to Israelis as the Temple Mount, the site of Al-Aqsa mosque, was reported in serious but stable condition after he was shot multiple times Wednesday night as he left a gathering of activists. The shooter sped away on a motorcycle.
Early Thursday, a police counterterrorism unit shot and killed Moataz Hijazi, 32, in the mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood of Abu Tor, which straddles the old border between east and west Jerusalem.
Hijazi worked in a restaurant in the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in west Jerusalem, where Glick had attended the meeting. Moria Halamish, who was with Glick as he left the meeting, told Israel Radio that the shooter approached him outside the center, addressed him by name and said in Arabic-accented Hebrew, “I’m sorry I have to do this, but you really hurt me,” before opening fire.
Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said that Hijazi, a former prisoner who had served more than a decade in Israeli jails, fired on officers who had surrounded his house hours after the shooting. Relatives and neighbors accused the police of an execution-style killing, showing reporters multiple bullet holes on a rooftop where the suspect’s body was found.
The spike of violence raised fears of a broader eruption of unrest triggered by mounting tensions surrounding the compound in Jerusalem’s Old City. It is revered by Jews as the site of the first and second Jewish temples and by Muslims as their third holiest shrine, the place toward which the Prophet Muhammad prayed before God instructed him to turn toward Mecca.
There have been increased clashes at the compound between Muslim youths and police in recent weeks, triggered by alarm over increased visits by right-wing Jewish activists intent on pressing the Israeli authorities to allow Jews to pray at the site.
Under arrangements established after Israel captured the area in the 1967 Six-Day War, the Al-Aqsa mosque plaza is reserved solely for Muslim worship, though Israelis and foreigners are allowed to visit.
In response to the attack on Glick, Israeli authorities banned all entry to the compound for the first time in 14 years, triggering a sharp protest from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who called the Muslim and Christian sacred sites in Jerusalem a “red line.”
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Abbas, warned that the Israeli actions were tantamount to a “declaration of war against the Palestinian people and its holy places, and against the Arab and Muslim nations.”
Israeli officials said later that Al-Aqsa would be opened for prayers on Friday, but men under 50 would be barred to prevent further unrest.
The last time Israel closed off the mosque compound was in 2000 after the late Ariel Sharon, then an opposition lawmaker, visited the site, triggering violent protests that mushroomed into the second Palestinian uprising.
In remarks made before Wednesday’s shooting, Abbas had called on Palestinians to prevent Jews from entering the Al-Aqsa compound “in any way possible,” asserting that “this is our sanctuary and they have no right to defile it.”
Reacting to the attack on Glick, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that there had been a “wave of incitement” against Jewish access to the Temple Mount by “radical Islamic elements” and by Abbas.
Netanyahu said he had ordered the dispatch of police reinforcements to maintain “status quo” arrangements in the holy places. “We must first of all lower the flames,” he said. “No side should take the law into its own hands.”
A police helicopter hovered Thursday over Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, where tension has been running high since the killing in July of a Palestinian teenager in revenge for the slaying of three Israeli teens in the West Bank.
Fueled by the recent war in Gaza and anger over increased efforts by Jewish activists to enter the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, daily street protests have pitted stone-throwing Palestinian youths against Israeli riot police.
After Hijazi, the suspected shooter, was killed, young Palestinians in his neighborhood confronted riot officers, who responded with volleys of tear gas.
Israeli security officials said Hijazi had been jailed for affiliation with the militant Islamic Jihad group, which published a statement welcoming the attack. After his release, Hijazi had vowed in a televised interview to be a “thorn in the throat of the Zionist scheme to Judaize Jerusalem.”
The shooting followed an incident last week in which a Palestinian motorist plowed his car into a station of the Israeli light-rail line in northern Jerusalem, killing a 3-month-old child and a young woman.
The driver, who was shot dead, was from Silwan, a volatile Palestinian neighborhood near Al-Aqsa where Jewish settlers recently expanded their presence by taking over more than 20 apartments they had acquired.