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Two Israeli policemen shot dead near Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque

AFP | Palestinian Muslim worshippers attend morning prayers at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's old city during the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan on June 23, 2017.

Three Arab-Israeli gunmen opened fire at police near Jerusalem's holiest site on Friday, killing two Israeli policemen, before security forces killed the attackers, police said.


Israeli authorities shut the area after the attacks - the most serious incident in years close to the highly sensitive compound, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews.

The closure stopped Muslims gathering there for Friday prayers, drawing a call for resistance from Palestinian leaders.

The gunmen arrived at the sacred site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, and walked towards one of the Old City gates nearby, police spokeswoman Luba Simri said.

"When they saw policemen they shot towards them and then escaped towards one of the mosques in the Temple Mount compound," Simri said. "A chase ensued and the three terrorists were killed by police."

She said three firearms were found on their bodies. The Shin Bet Israeli internal security service said the three gunmen were Arab citizens of Israel.

There was no immediate comment from the Palestinan Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank. No group claimed responsibility, though the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, praised the attack.

"Hamas lauds the heroic operation in Jerusalem," Hamas spokesman Abdel-Latif al-Qanoua said in a statement.

Mobile phone video footage aired by Israeli media showed several policemen chasing a man and shooting him down at the site, which is a popular place for foreign tourists to visit.

Israeli authorities are still working to identify the attackers, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

The Israeli ambulance service Magen David Adom said a third policeman was lightly wounded in the incident.

Tensions are often high around the marble-and-stone compound that houses the Aqsa Mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock. It is managed by Jordanian religious authorities and is adjacent to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews are permitted to pray.

Prayers cancelled

Police said Friday prayers for Muslims would not be held at the site following the attack for security reasons, while forces scanned the area for weapons and investigated the incident.

Authorities have often restricted access to the Aqsa mosque when concerned about possible violence there, but a total shutdown is rare.

The Palestinian Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Hussein, called on Palestinians to defy the shutdown.

"We completely reject the ban by Israeli authorities," Hussein told Reuters by telephone. "We have urged our Palestinian people to rush to al Aqsa today and every day to hold their prayers."

His call was later echoed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement.

In an apparent effort to ease tensions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement there would be no change to the agreement on shared use.

The compound is a tinder-box for the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Under a delicate agreement, Jews are allowed into the compound but are not permitted to pray.

A wave of Palestinian street attacks that began in 2015 has slowed but not stopped. At least 257 Palestinians and one Jordanian citizen have been killed since the violence began. A few of the attacks were carried out by Arab-Israeli citizens.

Israel says at least 176 of those killed were carrying out attacks while others died in clashes and protests. Forty Israelis, two U.S. tourists and a British student have been
killed in stabbings, shootings and car-rammings.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem, where the Old City and the holy compound are located, after the 1967 Middle East war and regards all of Jerusalem as its capital, a move that is not recognised internationally.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of the state they want to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel blames the wave of violence on incitement by the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, says desperation over the occupation is the main driver.


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