JERUSALEM: Security forces locked down parts of Jerusalem‘s Old City on Saturday and an ultra-sensitive holy site remained closed after an attack that killed two police officers and heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
Three Arab Israeli assailants opened fire on Israeli police Friday in the Old City before fleeing to the nearby Haram al-Sharif, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, where they were shot dead by police.
Israeli authorities said they had come from the flashpoint holy site, which includes the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, to commit the attack.
The authorities took the highly unusual decision to close the Al-Aqsa mosque compound for Friday prayers, leading to anger from Muslims and Jordan, the holy site’s custodian.
Wael Arabiyat, Jordan’s Islamic affairs minister, warned that keeping Al-Aqsa mosque closed is “dangerous” and “unprecedented”, a day after Amman on Friday called for its immediate reopening.
Hundreds of Jordanians, responding to a Muslim Brotherhood call, demonstrated in Amman after Saturday midday prayers, calling for the “liberation of Al-Aqsa”.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated the site will stay closed until at least Sunday while security was assessed, and rejected Jordan’s criticism.
“Instead of denouncing the terrorist attack, Jordan chose to attack Israel,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying by officials, and called for restraint.
Netanyahu also spoke of increasing security at entrances to the site when it reopens — likely to be a controversial move.
On Saturday, access was restricted through Damascus Gate, the main entrance used by Palestinians into Jerusalem’s Old City, and only residents with identification were allowed to pass.
“This is not security. This is punishment,” said Bader Jweihan, 53, an accountant who was denied entry.
Musa Abdelmenam Qussam, 73 and with poor eyesight, was helped by a grandson as he walked with a cane and sought to enter.
But the owner of a book wholesale shop in the Old City was also turned away.
“This mosque is not only for Muslims. Tourists come,” he said, adding that he usually prays at Al-Aqsa every day.
“This city is for all the world. It must be open.”
Jaffa Gate, heavily used by tourists and near the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, was open but with a heavy police presence.
A group of tourists from Poland said they were concerned when they heard about Friday’s shooting but wanted to continue their visit.
They planned to shop in the Old City and visit the nearby Garden of Gethsemane, where Christians believe Jesus prayed the night before his crucifixion.
“It stressed me a little,” said Ewa, who did not want to give her last name.
At Lions Gate near the site of the attack, police guarded the entrance and restricted access, checking IDs.
The attack and aftermath was one of the most serious incidents in Jerusalem in recent years.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Netanyahu spoke by phone on Friday as tensions rose.
Israeli authorities also detained Jerusalem’s top Muslim cleric, grand mufti Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, as crowds gathered at the gates of the Old City after the attack, his son said.
Hussein, who had criticised the closure of Al-Aqsa, was released later Friday after being questioned, according to another of his sons.
With Al-Aqsa closed, crowds gathered at Old City gates and held Friday prayers there instead.
The Palestinian director of the Waqf (religious property) council, Abdel Azim Salhab, said the closure of the mosque compound was the “worst aggression since 1967” — a reference to the start of Israel’s occupation of east Jerusalem which it later annexed.
The Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount is central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Palestinians fearing Israel may one day seek to assert further control over it.
It is considered the third holiest site in Islam and the most sacred for Jews.
Jews are allowed to visit but not pray there to avoid provoking tensions.
Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem after the 1967 Six-Day War was never recognised by the international community.