x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 September 2017

Al Aqsa mosque closed to worshippers after three Palestinians and two Israeli policemen shot dead nearby

Israeli police say the three attackers were from the Israeli town of Umm Al Fahm

Israeli policemen stand guard as Palestinian men pray outside Jerusalem's Old City on July 14, 2017, after Israeli authorities closed access to the Al Aqsa mosque following a shooting attack in which two policemen and three Palestinians were killed. Ammar Awad / Reuters
Israeli policemen stand guard as Palestinian men pray outside Jerusalem's Old City on July 14, 2017, after Israeli authorities closed access to the Al Aqsa mosque following a shooting attack in which two policemen and three Palestinians were killed. Ammar Awad / Reuters

JERUSALEM // Three Palestinian Israelis shot dead two policemen near the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem on Friday morning before being killed by security forces.

Israeli authorities then shut the area to Muslims gathering for Friday prayers, drawing a call for resistance from Palestinian religious leaders.

The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Hussein, called on Palestinians to defy the closure, and was later reported to have been detained.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack in a phone call with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but also said closing down the area could have repercussions.

Israeli police said the three Palestinians carried out the attack at the Lions’ Gate entrance to the Old City at around 7am, critically injuring two Israeli police officers.

Witnesses told the Palestinian news Agency Maan that the men arrived at the gate on a motorcycle and shot at the police officers at point-blank range before heading inside the Al Aqsa Mosque compound through the gate known in Arabic as Bab Al Huttah, where Israeli forces shot them at close range.

Mobile phone video footage aired by Israeli media showed several police chasing a man and shooting him at the site, a popular tourist attraction.

The Israeli police spokeswoman Luba Al Samri identified the shooters as Muhammad Ahmad Muhammad Jabarin, 29, Muhammad Hamid Abd Al Latif Jabarin and Muhammad Ahmad Mufdal Jabarin, both 19. All three were Palestinian citizens of Israel from the Palestinian-majority town of Umm Al Fahm. None of the men had a record with security agencies, she said.

The two policemen killed were Israeli Arab citizens from the Druze community. The Israeli ambulance service said a third policeman was lightly wounded in the incident.

Tensions are often high around the compound, which houses Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, and the golden Dome of the Rock. It is managed by Jordanian religious authorities and is adjacent to the Western Wall, a holy site where Jews are permitted to pray.

Police said Friday prayers for Muslims would not be held at the site following the attack for security reasons, while forces scanned the area for weapons and investigated the incident.

The compound has served as a tinderbox for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the past. Under a delicate status quo agreement, Jews are allowed to enter the compound under closer supervision but only Muslims are permitted to pray.

The closure prompted hundreds of Muslim worshippers to gather outside the walled Old City gates and hold prayers there.

Authorities have often restricted access to the Aqsa mosque when concerned about possible violence there, but a total shutdown is rare.

"We completely reject the ban by Israeli authorities," Grand Mufti Hussein told Reuters by telephone. "We have urged our Palestinian people to rush to Al Aqsa today and every day to hold their prayers."

An aide to the mufti said he was later detained by police at the Old City. A police spokesman could not confirm that report. Reuters video footage showed the Mufti being escorted away by a man in plain clothes, through a crowd of Palestinians gathered near the compound gate.

In an apparent effort to ease tensions, the Israeli prime minister issued a statement saying there would be no change to the status quo in which only Muslim prayer is permitted, a message he reiterated in his phone call with Mr Abbas, according to Mr Netanyahu's office.

Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, said images of the gunman being shot dead at the sacred site made the situation even more volatile.

"This can have much broader impact because defending Al Aqsa is at the core of Palestinian nationalism," Mr Zalzberg said. "Israel's response of closing access entirely to Muslims in attempt to deter further attacks actually exacerbates the crisis."

No group claimed responsibility for the attack, though the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, praised it. 

In a separate incident, a Palestinian teenager died after being shot in the chest during clashes with Israeli forces at the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. The Palestinian health ministry identified the victim as Bara Hamamdah, 18.

At least 257 Palestinians and one Jordanian citizen have been killed since a wave of Palestinian street attacks began in 2015. A few of the attacks were carried out by Arab Israeli citizens.

Israel says at least 176 of those killed were carrying out attacks while others died in clashes and protests. Forty Israelis, two US tourists and a British student have been killed in stabbings, shootings and car-rammings. 

Israel annexed East Jerusalem, where the Old City and the holy compound are located, after the 1967 Middle East war and regards all of Jerusalem as its capital, a claim not recognised internationally.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they hope to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.