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Jerusalem's Temple Mount closed for Muslim prayers after police killed

In the most serious attack on the holy site in years, two police officers have been killed by three assailants in Jerusalem. The Temple Mount or Noble Sanctuary was closed to Muslims gathering for Friday prayers.

Three Arab-Israeli gunmen killed two Israeli policemen near Jerusalem's holiest site, the Temple Mount, or Noble Sanctuary on Friday. The gunmen were then killed by security forces.

"When they saw the policemen they shot towards them and then escaped towards one of the mosques in the Temple Mount compound," police spokeswoman Luba Simri said. "A chase ensued and the three terrorists were killed by police."

The Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif), is sacred in both the Judaistic and the Islamic tradition.

The site houses several sacred buildings and structures

The site houses several sacred buildings and structures

There was protest at the closure of the site for Muslim prayers from the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem,
Mohammad Hussein, who urged Palestinians to defy the closure. He was later reported to have been detained but was released later Friday after being questioned, according to one of his sons.

On Saturday, Adnan Husseini, the Palestinian Authority's Jerusalem governor, called the closure "unprecented" and warned the situation was "dangerous." It is the first time the mosque has been closed since 1969.

Noon prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque in the compound are usually attended by tens of thousands of Muslims from Israel and the West Bank on Fridays. Unable to gain access to the site, they performed prayers in the streets near the Old City on Friday instead.

Police closed the site after the attack

Police closed the site after the attack

Consequences of closure

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack in a telephone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but also said closing the area could have repercussions. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres also condemned the attack and his spokesman said: "This incident has the potential to ignite further violence. All must act responsibly to avoid escalation."

Jordan is a custodian of the compound in Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem. On Friday, government spokesman Mohammad Al Momani called on Israel to end the closure, which he described as an "attack on the right of Muslims to practise their religious rituals in their holy sites."

The Israeli prime minister said later on Friday that the compound would be gradually reopened from Sunday, dependent on security assessments

As he was leaving for an official visit to France, Netanyahu's office issued a statement saying "It has been decided to reopen the Temple Mount gradually tomorrow [on Sunday] for the faithful, visitors and tourists."

On Saturday, Israeli security forces were reported to have locked down parts of Jerusalem's Old City, restricting access through Damascus Gate, the main entrance used by Palestinians.

Focus of tensions

The site has often been a flashpoint for clashes and protests, although there has seldom been gunfire. It is considered the third-holiest site in Islam and the holiest in Judaism.

Jerusalem is still in the grip of a series of Palestinian street attacks that began in 2015, although the violence has slowed. 

Since September 2015, Palestinian attackers have killed 43 Israelis, two visiting Americans and a British tourist. Israeli forces have killed more than 254 Palestinians in that time, with authorities describing most of the dead as attackers.

jm/msh (Reuters, AFP)

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