A militant from Palestinian Islamist group Hamas slammed a minivan into a crowd waiting for a train Wednesday in Jerusalem, killing one person and wounding 13. Just hours later, the Israeli military said a Palestinian motorist drove into a group of soldiers in the West Bank, injuring three, the Associated Press reported.
The incidents, combined with a similar attack two weeks earlier have raised concerns that Israel could be facing a new type of threat. Police said they would put concrete barricades in front of train stations as a first step.
Hamas said the Jerusalem attack was meant to protect the city’s most sensitive and sacred site - the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
Police identified the van’s driver - who was killed by police - as Ibrahim al-Akari, a 38-year-old Palestinian. His wife said he was angered by a confrontation between police and Palestinians at the al-Aqsa Mosque earlier in the day in which part of the shrine was damaged.
It was not clear how much damage there was at the mosque. Israeli police had dispersed dozens of masked Palestinians who threw rocks and firecrackers near the site in the Old City ahead of a visit by a group of Jewish activists.
Neighboring Jordan recalled its ambassador to Israel for consultations in a strong protest of the police action at the site and filed a complaint to the U.N. Security Council. Under an arrangement with Israel, Jordan has custodial rights over Muslim holy sites in the Old City, which includes the al-Aqsa Mosque.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned what he called “the terrorist attack in Jerusalem,” and added that “the confrontation at the al-Aqsa Mosque is also of particular concern.”
“Holy sites should not become the sites of tension, and concrete steps need to be taken now by all sides to de-escalate this situation,” Kerry said, noting that the U.S. was in touch with both Jordan and Israel and hoped that “all parties will draw back and reduce these tensions.”
The developments raised fears of worsening violence after months of simmering tensions in the holy city and injected new religious fervor into a wave of unrest fueled by failed peace efforts and stepped-up Jewish settlement construction.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the Jerusalem attack on incitement stemming from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and “his Hamas partners,” a reference to a unity government led by Abbas and backed by the Islamic militant group.
“We are in a prolonged battle in Jerusalem. I have no doubt we will win. We are deploying all the necessary forces to restore calm and security to all parts of the city but it may certainly be a prolonged struggle,” he said.
Israel has been trying for months to quell the unrest in east Jerusalem that began this summer but has surged over tensions surrounding the holy site.
In Wednesday’s attack in Jerusalem, police said the motorist drove the minivan into pedestrians waiting for the train at a stop. The driver backed out and drove away, hitting several cars along the way. He then got out of the van and attacked civilians and police officers on the side of the road with a metal bar before he was shot and killed.
The train stop is located along an unmarked line between west Jerusalem and the eastern sector captured in 1967.
Police said al-Akari was recently been released from prison after serving time for security offenses. His wife, Amira Soultan, told The Associated Press that he was inspired by the violence he saw at the mosque.
“He saw how the carpet of Al-Aqsa was burned. He saw it on his laptop, on Facebook and he went out,” she said.
Several of the wounded were security officers who had been deployed in response to the recent unrest. Police said the man killed by al-Akari was a member of the paramilitary border police force from the Arab Druse minority.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said security forces were working to thwart more such attacks, which have occurred sporadically in Jerusalem before the recent violence.
“It’s obviously a threat we’re having to deal with,” he said.
The apparent attack in the southern West Bank took place after dark Wednesday, and few details were released by the Israeli military. It said the driver of the car that struck the soldiers had fled the scene.
Last month, a Palestinian rammed his vehicle into a crowded train stop in east Jerusalem, killing a 3-month-old Israeli-American girl and a 22-year-old Ecuadorean woman. Days later, police shot and killed the suspected gunman behind a drive-by attack on Yehuda Glick, a Jewish activist who has pushed for greater Jewish access to the sacred hilltop compound. Glick remains hospitalized.
Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, praised Wednesday’s violence as a “glorious operation” and called for more. The group said al-Akari was a member, and that his brother was in exile in Turkey after being released in a 2011 prisoner swap. Hamas’ West Bank commander, Saleh Arouri, is based in Turkey.
In a statement, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Abbas, also condemned the police actions at the holy site but made no mention of the car attack.
Israel and Hamas are bitter enemies and fought a 50-day war in the summer. On Wednesday, Amnesty International accused Israel of committing war crimes during the fighting, saying it displayed “callous indifference” in attacks on homes in the densely populated coastal area. A U.N. commission is investigating Israel’s conduct in the war and is to release a report in March.
(With the Associated Press)