By Tia Goldenberg | AP,
JERUSALEM — An Arab attacker armed with a gun and a knife opened fire in a southern Israel bus station on Sunday, police said, killing an Israeli soldier and wounding 10 people in one of the boldest attacks yet in a monthlong wave of violence.
The attack came as Israel further tightened security around the country, highlighted by the construction of a barrier separating Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. In a bid to halt the fighting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he would meet the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the coming days.
Israel has deployed thousands of police, backed up by troops, to maintain order following a spate of attacks, mostly stabbings, by Palestinian assailants. Those measures have so far failed to stop the violence.
In Sunday night’s attack, police said the Arab assailant entered the central bus station in the southern city of Beersheba and began shooting and stabbing people. They said an Israeli soldier was killed, five police were lightly wounded and five civilians were wounded to varying degrees.
Yoram Halevy, a police commander in southern Israel, told reporters that in addition to the knife and gun he entered with, the attacker also snatched a weapon from the soldier he killed.
The attacker, whose identity was not immediately known, was shot and killed.
A foreigner was shot by police during the attack after they apparently mistook him for an assailant. Halevy said security forces responding to the attack entered the bus station from another area and saw a “foreign national,” shooting and wounding him.
Israeli media said the foreigner was an Eritrean national living in Israel.
Israeli media showed footage of a blood-streaked floor and rows of ambulances outside the bus station. Security camera footage from the bus station aired on Israeli TV showed what appeared to be a civilian shooting the attacker as soldiers and civilians crouched for cover nearby.
The attack was one of the most serious incidents amid near-daily bouts of violence that has hit Israel and the Palestinian territories over the past month. After the attack, a crowd of Israelis gathered outside the bus station and chanted “death to Arabs.”
The unrest erupted in Jerusalem a month ago over tensions surrounding a Jerusalem holy site sacred to Jews and Muslims. It soon spread to Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem and then to the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.
Israel has struggled to contain near-daily attacks by Palestinian assailants. Authorities have blocked roads and placed checkpoints at the entrances of Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. Other security measures include ID checks and requiring some Palestinian residents to lift their shirts and roll up pant legs as they exit their neighborhoods to prove they are not carrying knives. Soldiers have been deployed in Jerusalem and cities across Israel.
On Sunday, Israeli police erected a barrier to separate the Jewish neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv from the adjacent Palestinian neighborhood of Jabal Mukaber as part of the heightened security. A number of attackers have come from Jabal Mukaber.
Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said the barrier, a row of six concrete slabs about five meters (16 feet) high, was meant to protect Armon Hanatziv from rocks and firebombs lobbed from Jabal Mukaber.
But erecting a barrier dividing areas of Jerusalem is a sensitive step, testing Israel’s repeated statements over the years that the city is its undivided, eternal capital.
Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed the area in a move that is not recognized internationally. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state.
“This has no political meaning, said Emmanuel Nahshon, a spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry. “It’s one more aspect of our security measures.”
Samri, the police spokeswoman, said the barrier would remain “for as long as needed” and that it could be lengthened based on security needs.
On Sunday, the six slabs lined a sidewalk on a road between the Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. Writing in Hebrew on the barrier said it was a “temporary, mobile police barrier.” It did not prevent pedestrians from leaving or entering.
Palestinians said the roadblocks are collective punishment and ineffective in deterring attackers.
Israeli leaders say the violence is due to Palestinian incitement. But Palestinians say it is the result of years of Israeli occupation, failed peace efforts and lack of hope among their youth.
Much of that hopelessness is found in Arab areas of east Jerusalem. They complain of discrimination, noting that municipal services from education to garbage pickup in their areas are neglected.
Over the past month, nine Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks, most of them stabbings. In that time, 41 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, including 20 labeled by Israel as attackers, and the rest in clashes with Israeli troops.
The daily attacks have caused a sense of panic across Israel and raised fears that the region is on the cusp of a new round of heavy violence.
The outbreak was fueled by rumors that Israel was plotting to take over Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site, a hilltop compound revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest shrine and a key national symbol for the Palestinians.
Israel has adamantly denied the allegations, saying it has no plans to change the status quo at the site, where Jews are allowed to visit but not pray. It accuses the Palestinians of inciting to violence through the false claims.
Also Sunday, the Israeli military removed dozens of Jewish worshippers who clashed with Palestinians during an unauthorized visit to a Jewish shrine in the West Bank that was recently torched by Palestinians.
The military said some 30 Jews visited the Joseph’s Tomb compound in Nablus, a site revered by Jews as the tomb of the biblical figure Joseph. The area is under Palestinian control but Jewish prayer is permitted there when coordinated with authorities. The military said Sunday’s visit was not, and the worshippers had no permit. When they arrived they were confronted by Palestinians and a violent clash ensued. In consultation with Palestinian security forces, the military extracted the worshippers. One of them was lightly wounded and five were taken for police questioning.
On Friday, Palestinian assailants firebombed the West Bank compound, the first assault on a religious site in the current round of violence.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that his government would start going after the finances of the Islamic Movement in Israel, a group he accuses of being the chief inciter of the recent violence.
“Israel is not the problem at the Temple Mount, Israel is the solution,” he told his Cabinet. “We will protect the status quo, we are the only ones who are doing this and we will continue to do it responsibly and seriously.”
Associated Press photographer Ariel Schalit in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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