JERUSALEM: Israel closed all access to Jerusalem’s most sensitive religious site on Thursday, a rare move that ratcheted up already heightened tensions following the attempted assassination of a prominent Jewish religious activist and the killing of his suspected Palestinian assailant by police.
The Palestinians accused Israel of a “declaration of war,” deepening a crisis fueled by failed peace efforts, continued Israeli settlement construction and months of simmering violence in the holy city. While Israel said it would reopen the site on Friday, the increasingly religious nature of the unrest risked igniting further violence.
Both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders blamed each other for the tensions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has called for banning Jews from the hilltop holy site, of inciting the violence.
“The international community must stop its hypocrisy and act against the inciters,” Netanyahu said.
Abbas, meanwhile, said Jerusalem is a “red line that must not be touched.” The decision to close access to the Al Aqsa Mosque compound was “a declaration of war” that “will lead to further escalation and instability,” his spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, said. Abbas made no mention of the attempted killing of the Jewish activist.
East Jerusalem, the section of the city captured by Israel in 1967 and claimed by the Palestinians, has experienced unrest since the summer, with Palestinian youths throwing stones and firebombs at motorists and clashing frequently with Israeli police. The violence gained steam last week, when a Palestinian motorist rammed his car into a crowded train station, killing a 3-month-old Israeli-American baby girl.
Much of the unrest has centered on the holy site, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The violence reached a new high late Wednesday when a gunman on a motorcycle shot and seriously wounded Yehuda Glick, a U.S.-born activist who often leads groups of Jews on visits to the site.
Glick is a leading voice in efforts to allow Jews to pray on the mosque compound — something that Israeli authorities ban because they fear it would prompt violence. Muslim worshippers view Jewish prayer there as a provocation, fearing that Jewish extremists are plotting to take over the area.
In an interview this week with The Associated Press, Glick warned of the growing violence in Jerusalem and said Jews were increasingly being attacked by Muslims.
“The more extreme Islamist organizations 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.”
He remained hospitalized Thursday in serious condition.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki condemned the shooting and said the U.S. was “extremely concerned by escalating tensions” in Jerusalem. “It is critical that all sides exercise restraint, refrain from provocative actions and rhetoric, and preserve the status quo,” she said, adding the U.S. had been in touch with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian officials to calm the situation. Under a longstanding arrangement, Jordan holds custodial authority over the mosque compound.
Early Thursday, police forces surrounded the suspected gunman at his home in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the man, identified as Moataz Hijazi, opened fire and was killed by the Israeli forces.
Israel’s Shin Bet security agency said Hijazi had served 12 years in Israeli prison for a number of crimes before he was released in 2012. It described him as a sympathizer of the Islamic Jihad militant group, but said he appeared to have acted alone in Wednesday night’s attack.
Shortly after Hijazi was shot dead, clashes broke out in Abu Tor, with Palestinians hurling stones at riot police, who responded with rubber bullets to suppress the demonstration. A funeral was planned late Thursday.
The decision to close access to the holy site for the first time in more than 14 years underscored the incendiary nature of the current tensions.
The Palestinian uprising against Israel began after then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Jerusalem site in what many saw as a provocative gesture. That visit — in September 2000 — resulted in a temporary closure of the site.
Late Thursday, police said the site would be reopened on Friday to male Muslim worshippers over the age of 50 and female worshippers of all ages. Younger men would be barred, they said, because of the risk of renewed violence.
The Jerusalem tensions come at a sensitive time. U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed last April, and Israel battled Hamas militants in Gaza during a 50-day war over the summer.
More recently, Israel has announced plans to press forward with housing construction in east Jerusalem, drawing condemnation from the U.S. and other key allies.
This week, anonymous senior U.S. officials were quoted as criticizing Netanyahu as cowardly and indecisive in an interview with The Atlantic, and on Thursday, Sweden formally recognized a state of Palestine, a symbolic show of displeasure with Israeli policies.
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry criticized the derisive language used to describe Netanyahu in The Atlantic interview, and said he was still hopeful to forge peace.
“We still believe it is doable, but it takes courage, it takes strength,” he said.
Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.