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Attacks continue, Israel bars ministers from Jerusalem site

08 October 2015, 21:30

Jerusalem - Israeli troops shot and killed an Arab who stabbed four Israelis with a screwdriver on Thursday amid new Israeli-Palestinian violence that prompted the Israeli prime minister to bar Cabinet ministers and lawmakers from a sensitive holy site in Jerusalem's Old City that is at the heart of the latest tensions.

Two new stabbings, one in Jerusalem and another in Israel's economic hub of Tel Aviv, left several people wounded and an attacker dead.

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Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said a Palestinian teenager stabbed a 25-year-old Israeli in the neck in Jerusalem, wounding him seriously, before police arrested the attacker.

Hours later, an Israeli soldier shot and killed an Arab attacker after he stabbed and wounded four Israelis with a screwdriver, including a female soldier near a busy Tel Aviv road, Samri said. The attacker's identity was not immediately known.

It was the latest violence in a week in which bloody attacks left four Israelis dead. Including Thursday's incident, six Palestinians have been killed in the unrest.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's move to try and calm the situation appeared to put the Israeli leader on a collision course with hard-liners within his own governing coalition. They have been putting intense pressure on Netanyahu to respond to the surge in violence with a tough crackdown and increased settlement activity.

But Netanyahu is also wary of angering the American administration and risking another full-fledged uprising with too tough a response that could lead to a higher number of casualties on both sides.

The Jerusalem hilltop compound lies at the heart of recent tensions. It's revered by Muslims as the spot where Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven and by Jews as the site of the two Jewish biblical Temples.

Many Palestinians believe Israel is trying to expand Jewish presence at the site, a claim Israel adamantly denies and considers slanderous. Under a longstanding arrangement administered by Islamic authorities, Jews are allowed to visit the site during certain hours but not pray there.

The latest Israeli-Palestinian unrest began about three weeks ago as Palestinians repeatedly barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa mosque, located at the sacred site, and hurled stones, firebombs and fireworks at the police.

The violence later spread to Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem and to the West Bank, and on Tuesday there were disturbances in Jaffa, a largely Arab area of Tel Aviv.

Even with Thursday's stabbing attacks, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would not allow his people to be "dragged" into more violence with Israel. Speaking to business leaders in the West Bank city of Ramallah, he said he was committed to "peaceful popular resistance" though he backs the protesters who have barricaded themselves inside Al-Aqsa and clashed with Israeli police.

He insisted the Palestinians are not interested in a further escalation but that his "hands are with those who are protecting Al-Aqsa mosque."

Along with the four Israelis killed in stabbings by Palestinian attackers and a roadside shooting in the last week, six Palestinians, including four of the attackers, have also been killed. On Wednesday, new stabbings occurred outside a crowded mall in central Israel, in a southern Israeli town and in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Israel has beefed up security in response to the violence in Jerusalem, and on Thursday police set up metal detectors at the entrance to Israel's Old City as a measure to prevent attacks.

According to an Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under regulations, Netanyahu ordered the ban on the holy site because he was concerned that any high-profile visits there could spark further violence.

In 2000, then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary shortly before the second Palestinian intifada erupted.

In a statement from Geneva on Thursday, the U.N. human rights chief appealed for calm, warning that "more bloodshed will only lead to more hatred on both sides" of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

Zeid Raad al-Hussein said he was "deeply concerned at the increasing number of reported attacks" by both Israeli settlers and Palestinians, following reports that at least 134 Palestinians have been injured by live ammunition and many more hurt by rubber bullets or tear gas. "The high number of casualties, in particular those resulting from the use of live ammunition by Israeli security forces, raise concerns of excessive use of force," he said.

Netanyahu's ban, which initially only applied to Jewish lawmakers, sparked an angry response from Uri Ariel, a Cabinet minister from the pro-settler Jewish Home party, who recently visited the site and drew Palestinian claims of a provocation. He said the decision was "unfathomable" and that he would take the issue up directly with Netanyahu.

Responding to the pressure, Netanyahu later updated the ban to include all lawmakers. That, in turn, sparked angry threats from several Arab lawmakers who said Netanyahu had no moral authority over them. Two of the lawmakers have already announced that they plan to visit the site on Friday.

With the attacks spilling into the Israeli heartland, Netanyahu has warned Israelis to be on guard.

In another sign of the tensions, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat a former military officer and licensed gun owner defended his decision to carry a weapon during a visit this week to an Arab neighborhood and on Thursday, he encouraged other licensed gun owners to also carry their weapons at this tense time.

"One of the advantages Israel has is that there are many veterans of military units with operational combat experience," he said. "Having a weapon increases the resident's confidence."

In related developments, Jerusalem's junior high and high schools went on strike Thursday to protest the lack of security on campuses. Barkat said the city's students have been "abandoned" and that it was irresponsible to send them to school with the threat of violence looming.

- AP


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