In drastic step, Israel bars Palestinians from Jerusalem Old City

Friday 02/10/2015
Mounting tensions

JERUSALEM - Israel took the rare and drastic step of barring Palestinians from Jerusalem's Old City on Sunday as tensions mounted following attacks that killed two Israelis and wounded a child.

The restrictions will be in place for two days, with only Israelis, tourists, residents of the area, business owners and students allowed, police said.

Worship at the sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound will be limited to men aged 50 and above. There will be no age restrictions on women, and worshippers will be allowed to enter through one specific gate.

The Palestinian government denounced "Israeli escalation" after the announcement of the ban, which Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called unprecedented.

The usually bustling alleyways of the walled Old City were mostly quiet on Sunday morning, with stores closed and hundreds of police guarding entrances. Some shops began gradually opening later in the day.

Police fired stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse protesters at one gate, a journalist reported.

Some 300,000 Palestinians live in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, where the Old City is located.

The attacks late Saturday and early Sunday came with Israeli security forces already on alert after recent clashes at the Al-Aqsa compound and surrounding Old City, as well as the murder in the West Bank of a Jewish settler couple in front of their young children.

On Saturday night, a Palestinian said to be an Islamist militant killed two Israeli men and wounded a woman and a toddler in a knife and gun attack in the Old City. Police shot dead the attacker.

In a separate incident early Sunday, a 19-year-old Palestinian stabbed and wounded a passerby in west Jerusalem before being shot dead by police while fleeing.

There were clashes elsewhere overnight and on Sunday, and the Red Crescent reported 77 Palestinians wounded from both live rounds and rubber bullets.

Another 139 had been treated for tear gas inhalation and six for injuries sustained in beatings by soldiers or Jewish settlers, a Red Crescent spokeswoman said.

Clashes broke out in areas including Jenin in the West Bank, where Israeli soldiers raided a refugee camp to arrest a Hamas official, and the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Issawiya, where the attacker in Sunday morning's stabbing, identified as Fadi Alloun, was from.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to return from the United States on Sunday and hold consultations with Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon. His security cabinet is also to meet on Monday, after the end of the Jewish Sukkot holiday, Israeli media reported.

There have been fears that the sporadic violence could spin out of control, with some warning of the risk of a third Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Last week, in his address to the UN General Assembly, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said he was no longer bound by previous accords with Israel, accusing the Israeli government of violating them.

Saturday's Old City attack saw a two-year-old child slightly wounded in the leg and taken to hospital. A woman was in serious condition, rescue services said.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said it appeared the child had been shot.

The two men who were killed were a 41-year-old rabbi and resident of the Old City as well as a 21-year-old who lived in a West Bank settlement and was an off-duty soldier, Israeli media said.

Media reports said three of the victims were members of the same ultra-Orthodox family on their way to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.

The attacker first used a knife, but reportedly took a gun from one of the male victims and fired at police when they responded after being alerted, before he was himself shot dead.

Police named him as Mohannad Shafiq Halani, 19, from a village near Ramallah in the West Bank.

Militant group Islamic Jihad said he was one of its members, but did not claim responsibility for the attack. Islamist movement Hamas, in power in the Gaza Strip, praised the attack as "a heroic act of resistance".

The United States condemned it, with State Department spokesman John Kirby saying Washington was "very concerned about mounting tensions in the West Bank and Jerusalem".

Israeli security forces have been on high alert during recent Jewish and Muslim holidays, particularly with Jews visiting the sensitive Al-Aqsa compound, which they call the Temple Mount.

The eight-day Jewish Sukkot holiday began last Sunday and has continued all week.

Thursday night's murder of a Jewish settler couple in the West Bank in front of their four children further fuelled tensions.

The murders came hours after Netanyahu addressed the UN General Assembly in New York, where he called for a resumption of direct peace talks with the Palestinians.

Abbas addressed the UN a day earlier, issuing his declaration that he was no longer bound by previous accords and pushing for a multilateral peace effort.

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