Netanyahu Bars Politicians From Holy Site in Jerusalem


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Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces during clashes in the West Bank village of Tuqua, on Thursday.

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Musa Al-Shaer/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

JERUSALEM — Declaring “we do not need any more matches to set the ground afire,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel announced Thursday that he had barred his ministers and members of Parliament from visiting a contested Old City holy site. But that did little to calm the violence that has raged for a week.

“Terrorists that have been incited and who are riven with hate are trying to attack our people — babies, children, men and women, civilians and soldiers,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a news conference on Thursday night, renewing his call for a national unity government to replace his narrow, conservative coalition. “The terrorists and the extremists behind them will achieve nothing. We will rebuff them and we will defeat them.”

The rallying cry defining the latest surge in Palestinian protests and the rationale given by some of the recent attackers is the struggle over the Old City site revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Many analysts fear that the intensifying provocations there between Muslim worshipers and Jewish visitors threaten to fuel the Israeli-Palestinian political conflict with a combustible religious fervor.

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An Israeli man looked over the body of a Palestinian assailant who was shot dead after carrying out a stabbing attack on an Israeli soldier and three civilians in Tel Aviv on Thursday.

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Jack Guez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On Thursday alone there were four stabbing attacks by Palestinians that wounded seven Israelis, according to the authorities. An Israeli soldier shot and killed one of the assailants, a man who wounded a soldier and three civilians with a screwdriver and carving knife in Tel Aviv, according to the police. Israeli forces killed another young Palestinian in the Shuafat refugee camp on Thursday night, witnesses said, when a riot broke out as they came to search the home of the man suspected of wounding a yeshiva student with a knife in Jerusalem that morning.

Israel announced late Thursday that men under 50 would not be allowed to pray at Al Aqsa on Friday, an increasingly frequent restriction amid the heightened tension.

Mr. Netanyahu has said repeatedly — and did so again on Thursday — that he would not alter the status quo at the site, a 37-acre compound that includes two major Islamic shrines, Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, including a prohibition on non-Muslim prayer.

But Muslim leaders, including President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, have insisted that Israel plans to divide the compound. Many Palestinians point to recent visits by Uri Ariel, Mr. Netanyahu’s agriculture minister, who has joined fringe groups in calling for a new Jewish temple to be built there.

On Thursday, Mr. Ariel condemned the prohibition on visits by politicians as “wrong and mistaken,” telling the Israeli news website Walla that “it may be seen by the rioters and terrorists as capitulation to their demands and will, of course, increase rather than decrease terror.”

Arab members of Israel’s Parliament also denounced the decision, and said they would defy it by ascending to worship at Al Aqsa on Sunday. One of them, Ahmad Tibi, called Mr. Netanyahu’s barring of Arab members along with Jewish ones “insane and illegal” and “a U-turn that was liable to escalate the situation,” according to Israel Radio. Another Arab lawmaker, Jamal Zahalka, tried to visit the site Thursday afternoon and was turned back.

“Netanyahu is not the king, not the law, and I don’t give a hoot about his decision,” Mr. Zahalka said. “The fact that there is a government decision still does not mean there is a court order forbidding me from going in, and I intend to enter.”

Israeli officials said that some 2,000 police officers had been added to Jerusalem’s streets, and six metal detectors to the gates of the Old City, to thwart further attacks. Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition in Parliament, called for a more intensive security crackdown, including a “complete closure” imposed on the occupied West Bank.

Mayor Nir Barkat of Jerusalem shut the city’s secondary schools Thursday and Friday, joining with the parents’ association in a strike to demand more security guards on campuses. Mr. Barkat also called on citizens with licensed weapons to start carrying them in the streets, as he is with his own .40-caliber Glock pistol.

“It’s an extra security measure, both practically and in the perception of security,” Mr. Barkat said in an interview. “It’s a multiplier for the police and the security forces to enable neutralizing terror attacks.”

Students at several West Bank universities skipped classes on Thursday and instead took to the streets, where they hurled rocks and firebombs at Israeli soldiers.

“Al Aqsa is a red line!” declared a student named Ibrahim who refused to give his last name and said he had been confronting soldiers in front of the Jacir Palace Hotel in Bethlehem for several days. “They are trying to take Al Aqsa away from the Palestinians, and this will never happen.”

Israel seized the site from Jordan, along with the rest of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, in the six-day war of 1967. It returned all but security control to an Islamic trust under Jordanian custodianship.

After Israel closed the site for a day last fall, during another violent outbreak, Jordan recalled its ambassador from Israel for three months and said the 20-year-old peace treaty between the two nations could be threatened.

On Wednesday, King Abdullah II of Jordan told an international council of Islamic elders that he maintained diplomatic and legal options to counter Israeli violations at the site. Late Thursday, Mohammad al-Momani, the Jordanian government spokesman, said in an interview, “Of course we look positively at Netanyahu’s decision” to bar politicians from the site, adding: “We expect further steps to be taken to ease the tensions and allow Muslims to worship freely and to stop any provocation.”

The compound, which includes residences and schools as well as the two major shrines, is Islam’s third holiest place, as well as a Palestinian national and cultural symbol. The mount is also the holiest site in Judaism, and has drawn growing numbers of Jewish visitors in recent years, including many who agitate for the right to pray freely at the site, and a far smaller number who want to take full control of it and replace the iconic Dome of the Rock with a new temple.

That has led to growing clashes between Muslim worshipers, Jewish visitors and Israeli security forces.

Last month, Israel outlawed organized groups of Muslims who intimidate and harass visitors. Mr. Netanyahu on Thursday promised to take further “stern actions” against the groups’ backer, the Northern Islamic Movement in Israel.

Mr. Herzog, the Israeli opposition leader, said on Thursday that Mr. Netanyahu should have barred politicians much sooner. Some members of Mr. Netanyahu’s own government were even more critical.

“The prime minister is showing the international community that he is doing everything in order not to ignite the area — I think this is a mistake,” said Tzipi Hotovely, the deputy foreign minister, who has agitated for Jewish prayer at the site. “I think it is correct at all times to go up to the Temple Mount.”



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