Attack on pedestrians in Jerusalem raises fears of heightening violence amid ongoing tensions

A Hamas militant slammed a minivan into a crowd waiting for a train Wednesday in Jerusalem, killing one person and wounding 13 in a midday attack that raised fears of worsening violence after months of simmering tensions in the holy city.

JERUSALEM — A Hamas militant slammed a minivan into a crowd waiting for a train Wednesday in Jerusalem, killing one person and wounding 13 in a midday attack that raised fears of worsening violence after months of simmering tensions in the holy city.

Hamas said the attack, the second of its kind in two weeks, 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.

It also injected new religious fervour into a wave of unrest fueled by failed peace efforts and stepped-up Jewish settlement construction in the eastern sector.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the 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. Earlier in the day, 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.

Neighbouring Jordan recalled its ambassador to Israel for consultations in a strong protest of the police raid at the site. Jordan also said it would submit a complaint to the U.N. Security Council. Under a longstanding arrangement with Israel, Jordan retains custodial rights over Muslim holy sites in the Old City, which includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the compound.

“We have sent repeated messages to Israel directly and indirectly that Jerusalem is a red line,” said Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, citing “continuous violations and incursions, and stopping people from worshipping freely and allowing extremists from coming in.” He spoke at a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the world body is “deeply concerned about the continued violence and tensions we’re seeing in Jerusalem,” adding that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the attack on pedestrians.

Dujarric said the continuing provocations and restrictions on access at the holy sites “need to be urgently deescalated.”

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.

In a similar attack last month, a Palestinian rammed his vehicle into a crowded train stop on the same street 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.

In Wednesday’s attack, 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 where Wednesday’s attack occurred is located along an unmarked line between west Jerusalem and the eastern sector captured in 1967.

Police identified the assailant as Ibrahim al-Akari, a 38-year-old Palestinian, and said he had recently been released from prison after serving time for security offences. 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. Police said they plan to set up barricades near train stops to prevent the attacks.

Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, praised the 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.

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.

East Jerusalem, the section of the city captured by Israel in 1967 and claimed by the Palestinians, has been fraught with unrest since summer, with Palestinian youths throwing stones and firebombs at motorists and clashing frequently with Israeli police.

The Old City’s holy site has been beset in recent weeks by clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police. Police say the aim of the unrest was to prevent the visits of non-Muslims to the site. Palestinians see the visits as a provocation and fear Israel is secretly plotting to take over the site.

The tensions come at a sensitive time, with U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks having collapsed in April. This week, Israel announced plans to press forward with housing construction in east Jerusalem, drawing condemnation from the U.S. and other key allies.

The European Union’s new foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, condemned the settlement construction, calling it “another highly detrimental step” that undermines peace prospects and “seriously calls into question” Israel’s commitment to peace.

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