“We cannot allow for agents of murder, who desecrate the name of God, to drag us into a bloody war, and we will deal with a heavy hand against all the arms of terror, and its perpetrators,” President Reuven Rivlin of Israel said in a statement. “The state of Israel will defend its sovereignty and its citizens with a strong hand, and will not allow anyone to provoke the region into a bloody war.”
The police announced that they had evacuated and closed the compound, and helicopters circled above the area after the attack.
The closing of the holy site is an exceptional and potentially explosive measure; Israeli-imposed restrictions on Muslim entry to the compound have prompted rioting in Palestinian areas in the past. Previous Israeli measures taken in response to, or to prevent, violence at the site have also strained Israel’s relations with Jordan, a neighbor and crucial ally that retains a special role in administering the site under the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of 1994.
Keenly aware of the sensitivities, the Israeli police described Friday’s events as “extraordinary and extreme,” adding in a statement: “Shooting on the Temple Mount is a grave and delicate occurrence, with diplomatic and international significance, and it will be dealt with accordingly.” One of the assailants had tried to flee into a mosque at the site before being shot, the police said.
The Old City is in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war and then annexed, a move that was never internationally recognized.
The police said the site would remain closed to worshipers until the investigation of Friday’s events was completed, and said searches were underway in the area. In an apparent effort to head off more violence and criticism, the police emphasized that the measures did not signify a long-term change to the delicate status quo at the holy site. They added that the assailants had been armed with two automatic weapons, a handgun and at least one knife, and said officers were making sure that other weapons were not being stored at the site.
The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein, told Maan, an independent Palestinian news site, that Israeli forces had prevented him from entering the Aqsa compound at multiple entrances on Friday.
“We insist on reaching Al Aqsa Mosque and performing prayers there,” Sheikh Hussein told Maan. “The occupation preventing us from praying marks an assault against our right to worship in this pure Islamic mosque.”
The gates around the Old City have been the scene of numerous deadly stabbing and gun attacks, mostly against police officers guarding the historic area, which is also popular with tourists. Dozens of civilians have also been killed in a wave of Palestinian attacks in Jerusalem, the West Bank and cities across Israel since the fall of 2015. Attacks by Arab citizens of Israel, who also identify as Palestinian nationals, have been much rarer.
The gateways to the Old City and the entrances to the Aqsa Mosque compound are heavily guarded by Israeli security forces, particularly on Fridays, when thousands of Muslims attend prayers. The attack, which took place soon after 7 a.m., immediately raised questions about security arrangements.
A month ago, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, three Palestinians from the West Bank armed with an improvised submachine gun and knives attacked police officers near the Damascus Gate of the Old City, killing one.
The Islamic State militant group took responsibility for the June attack, though that claim could not be confirmed independently and was dismissed by the Israeli security services, who said they found no direct links or communications between the assailants and the group.
After the attack on Friday, the police posted a photo on Twitter of the guns the assailants were believed to have used.