By DANIEL ESTRIN, Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — In an unprecedented measure, Israeli police barred Palestinians from Jerusalem’s Old City on Sunday in response to stabbing attacks that killed two Israelis and wounded three others, as Israel’s prime minister vowed a “harsh offensive” to counter rising violence.
Tensions have flared in recent weeks over an Old City holy site sacred to Muslims and Jews, a series of so-called “lone wolf” attacks on Israelis and a security clampdown, which on Sunday saw Israeli troops launch a bloody arrest raid in the West Bank.
The latest spike in violence comes at a time when many Palestinians no longer believe statehood through negotiations with Israel is possible. Israeli commentators raised the possibility of a third uprising, though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has so far prevented major outbreaks of violence despite his growing friction with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In response to the recent violence, Israeli police said they would prevent Palestinian residents of Jerusalem from entering the Old City for two days during a Jewish holiday. Palestinians who live, work and study within the Old City, as well as Israelis and tourists, will be allowed in.
“This is a drastic measure that’s being taken in order to make sure there are no further attacks during the Jewish festival where you can see thousands of people visiting the Old City,” Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Israel captured the Old City and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, and later annexed the areas. Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state.
Some 300,000 Palestinians live in Jerusalem, making up about a third of the city’s population. They live in the predominantly Arab eastern district and have residency status in the city, but do not hold Israeli citizenship.
They are usually free to enter the Old City in east Jerusalem, where major Muslim, Christian and Jewish holy sites are located. Jerusalem expert Danny Seidemann said it is the first time since Israel captured the Old City in 1967 that it has prevented Jerusalem’s Palestinians from entering.
In the latest attack, Israeli police say a Palestinian teenager stabbed and moderately wounded a 15-year-old Israeli early Sunday morning in Jerusalem before being shot dead by Israeli police.
Israeli TV showed footage of the alleged assailant walking along the city’s light rail tracks as bystanders screamed, “Shoot him!” In the video, a police car arrives on the scene, multiple gunshots are heard, and the attacker is then seen lying on the ground.
The attack came hours after a Palestinian teen fatally stabbed two Israelis in the Old City and wounded the wife and toddler of one of the slain men, before the attacker was shot dead by an Israeli police officer. Israeli officials identified the victims of Saturday’s attack as Aharon Banita, a 21-year-old soldier, and Rabbi Nehemia Lavi, a father of seven who was a rabbi at a seminary in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.
Tensions have soared in recent weeks over a major holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli police and Palestinian demonstrators have clashed repeatedly there in recent weeks.
The unrest has spread to the West Bank, where at least 18 Palestinians were wounded in clashes with Israeli troops Sunday during an Israeli arrest raid. On Friday, an Israeli couple was killed in a Palestinian drive-by shooting in the West Bank.
Netanyahu said he would meet with security officials Sunday to decide on a “harsh offensive on Palestinian Islamic terror,” according to a statement on his Facebook page. “We are in an all-out war against terror,” Netanyahu wrote.