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Tensions spiral as Israel closes disputed holy site

October 30, 2014

Israel has closed a contested Muslim-Jewish holy site in Jerusalem following the shooting of a Jewish ultranationalist. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has condemned the move as a "declaration of war."

Ausschreitungen in Ost-Jerusalem 30.10.2014
Image: Reuters/Ammar Awad

"We hold the Israeli government responsible for the dangerous escalation in the occupied city of Jerusalem, which reached a peak with the closure of al-Aqsa Mosque this morning," a spokesman for Abbas, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said on Thursday.

He added that the Palestinian Authority was considering taking legal action and that the closure was "tantamount to a declaration of war" on the Palestinian people, warning it could fuel "more tension and instability."

Israel on Thursday took the unusual step of closing Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque compound to all visitors amid concerns over a rapid escalation of violence in the city. It's the first time such a measure has been taken since Israel seized East Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War.

Just hours after the closure was announced, Israeli police shot and killed a Palestinian man suspected of attempting to assassinate Yehuda Glick, a hardline advocate for expanded Jewish prayer rights at the Old City's holy compound. The incident sparked intense clashes between police and Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem which has seen almost daily unrest, particularly around the disputed holy site.

The compound houses Islam's third holiest site, known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary, but is also the most sacred shrine for Jews who refer to it as the Temple Mount.

Jews normally pray at the Western Wall situated below the platform on which the al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques stand. But Glick had encouraged Jews to also pray on the plateau itself, angering Muslims.

Controversial shrine

Following the attempt on Glick's life, far-right groups responded with outrage, calling on their supporters to march on al-Aqsa. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday urged for calm on both sides and said the closure of al-Aqsa was only temporary.

"I have ordered a significant increase in forces … so we can both ensure security in Jerusalem and also maintain the status quo in the holy places," he said in a statement. "We must first of all lower the flames. No side should take the law into its own hands."

US-born Glick, a rabbi and member of Netanyahu's Likud party, was shot by a man late Wednesday outside a conference promoting greater Jewish access to the al-Aqsa compound. He suffered three bullet wounds and is currently in a serious condition in hospital.

Early Thursday, counter-terrorism police swooped on a house in the Abu Tor neighborhood, where the suspect opened fire on them. They shot back and killed the man, who has been identified as 32-year-old Moataz Hejazi.

Militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad mourned Hejazi's death but praised the attack on Glick.

Palestinian anger has been fueled in the past weeks by Jewish settlers moving into largely Arab neighborhoods, and an increase in the number of visits to the sacred Old City compound by Orthodox Jews, including some politicians.

There have long been tensions on the eastern side of Jerusalem, but violence erupted in earnest when Israel launched a 50-day offensive on the Gaza Strip over summer.

nm/sb (dpa, Reuters, AFP, AP)