JERUSALEM – Arab assailants struck at ground zero of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Friday, opening fire from inside a major Jerusalem shrine and killing two Israeli policemen before being shot dead.
The rare attack from within the sacred site, revered by both Muslims and Jews, raised new concerns about an escalation of violence. The three attackers were Arab citizens of Israel, also a rarity in a rash of Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers that erupted about two years ago, in part over tensions at the holy site.
Jerusalem police commissioner Yoram Halevy said the attack was well planned: The assailants had obtained automatic weapons and stayed at the holy compound the night before. He said they marked their targets in advance and after shooting them ran back inside the compound. “The entire incident began and ended” at the holy compound, he told channel 10 TV.
After the violence, Israel closed the site — known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount — for further sweeps to make sure there were no more weapons there.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it would reopen gradually after security evaluations on Sunday.
Jordan, a custodian of the sacred compound, called for its immediate reopening to allow access to Muslim worshippers.
Netanyahu acted quickly to allay Muslim fears, saying that the status quo at the Muslim-administered site “will be preserved.”
Jews revere the site, where the two Jewish temples stood in biblical times, as the Temple Mount. It is the holiest site in Judaism and the nearby Western Wall, a remnant of one of the temples, is the holiest place where Jews can pray.
Muslims regard the same hilltop compound as the Noble Sanctuary. Home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, it is Islam’s third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The fate of the area is an emotional issue at the heart of the conflict and forms the centerpiece of rival Israeli and Palestinian national narratives.
After Friday’s attack, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said: “We cannot allow for agents of murder who desecrate the name of God, to drag us into a bloody war.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reached out to Netanyahu in a phone call, highlighting the concern about a possible escalation. The leaders have almost no direct contact.
Abbas condemned the attack and said he rejects “any violence from any party, particularly at holy sites,” said the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.
Police are investigating how the weapons were brought into the site.
Israeli police chief Roni Alsheikh said the attackers opened fire on the Israeli officers from inside the site. In response, “a police force charged at the terrorists, killed two and wounded the third,” he said. The wounded assailant used a knife to attack an Israeli officer checking him for explosives and was killed, the police chief said.
Footage released by police showed the attackers with guns raised running from inside the compound and attacking the officers on duty at the entrance.
A relative said the attackers were members of the Jabareen clan — two 19-year-olds and a 29-year-old.
They were devout Muslims and frequently visited the shrine, traveling to Jerusalem by bus from their homes in northern Israel, the relative, Yehiyeh Jabareen, told The Associated Press. He said the family was in shock over the shooting.
He confirmed the authenticity of a post on the Facebook page of one of the younger attackers that showed him flashing a half-smile. “God willing, tomorrow’s smile will be more beautiful,” read the caption.
The two slain policemen— Advanced Staff Sgt. Maj. Hael Sathawi, 30, and Advanced Staff Sgt. Maj. Kamil Shanan, 22, were members of Israel’s Druze community, followers of a secretive off-shoot of Islam.
Shanan was a son of Shachiv Shanan, a former member of parliament for the Labor Party. Sathawi left a wife and a 3-week-old baby, police said.
Unlike the majority of their fellow Arabs in Israel, many Druze serve in the Israeli security forces.
Israel’s Arab minority enjoys full citizenship rights but sometimes face discrimination in areas like housing and jobs. They are sometimes viewed with suspicion as many identify politically and culturally with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
The closing of the shrine, something that rarely happens, meant the cancellation of noon prayers, which typically draw tens of thousands of Muslims from Israel and the West Bank to the compound on Fridays. The faithful performed prayers in the streets near the Old City instead.
Israel has previously accused Palestinians of stockpiling rocks and other projectiles in one of the mosques in the holy compound, and Israeli security forces have fired tear gas and stun grenades at the compound to disperse Palestinian stone throwers, who have at times have targeted Jews praying at the Western Wall.
Israel’s minister of public security Gilad Erdan said “the terrorists had desecrated the sanctity” of the site.
The top Muslim cleric of the Holy Land, Mohammed Hussein, was detained by police for several hours after the shooting.
In the past two years, Palestinians have killed 45 Israelis, two visiting Americans and a British tourist in stabbings, shootings and attacks using cars to ram into Israeli civilians and troops.
During that period, Israeli forces have killed more than 254 Palestinians, most of them said by Israel to be attackers while others were killed in clashes with Israeli forces.
Israel blames the violence on incitement by Palestinian political and religious leaders compounded on social media sites that glorify violence and encourage attacks.
Palestinians say the attacks are triggered by anger over decades of Israeli occupation of territories they claim for their future state.
The Jerusalem shrine has been the scene of repeated confrontations.
In September 2000, then-Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon made a provocative visit to the site to show Israeli presence, sparking Palestinian protests that quickly escalated into armed clashes between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers.
The incident was one of the triggers of an armed Palestinian uprising, including Palestinian suicide bombings targeting civilians in cafes and buses, that claimed several thousand victims, most of them Palestinians, and only began to ebb in 2005.
Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh and Karin Laub in the West Bank contributed to this report.