Israel’s prime minister has emphasized there will be no change in the status of a contentious Jerusalem holy site amid spiking tensions in the area.
The statement by Benjamin Netanyahu came a day after a Hamas militant slammed a minivan into a crowd waiting for a train in Jerusalem, killing one person and wounding 13 before being shot dead by police, and a Palestinian motorist drove into a group of soldiers in the West Bank, wounding three.
The second motorist turned himself into Israeli security forces on Thursday, the army said.
The attacks came after Palestinians clashed with police at the holy compound — known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims — over a push by Israeli activists to widen access to Jews visiting the site.
The clashes, which erupted as Palestinians threw stones and firecrackers in response to a demonstration by Israeli activists, prompted Jordan — which has custodial rights to the site as part of its 1994 peace agreement with Israel — to recall its ambassador in protest at the actions of Israeli security forces.
And the wife of the first attacker said he had been angered by the confrontation at the site earlier in the day.
“There will be no change in the status quo at the Temple Mount,” government spokesman Mark Regev quoted Netanyahu as telling security officials late Wednesday. “Anyone saying otherwise is expressing a personal opinion and not the views of the government.”
In recent weeks hard-line Israeli politicians have stepped up demands for the removal of restrictions preventing Jews from praying at the site.
Such demands have been raised almost from the day the government imposed restrictions on Jewish prayer there in the immediate wake of the 1967 Middle East war.
That conflict saw Israel seize east Jerusalem — which includes the holy site — as well as the West Bank and Gaza, territories where the Palestinians want to establish an independent state.
The durability of the restrictions reflect a longstanding Israeli desire not to inflame Muslim sensitivities and a formal rabbinical ban on praying in an area that tradition holds was the site of Judaism’s ancient holy temples.
But in recent weeks tensions have increased substantially, buoyed by claims and counter-claims issued by both Israelis and Palestinians over the explosive issue.
Last month, a Palestinian rammed his vehicle into a crowded train stop 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 separate drive-by attack on Yehuda Glick, a rabbi and activist who has pushed for greater Jewish access to the sacred hilltop compound. Glick remains hospitalized.
Reacting Thursday to comments from Israeli security officials that any change in the status of the site could ratchet tensions well past the breaking point, Moshe Feiglin, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, said that the struggle there was directly related to Israeli efforts to achieve overall security throughout the country.
“Any pullback from the Temple Mount will not end just at its gates,” he said. “This society has to decide whether it is willing to pay the price to maintain its control, not only at the site, but in Israel as a whole.”
Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Israeli politicians pushing for greater Jewish access to the site were behaving irresponsibly, without referring to anyone by name.
“I think these are people seeking cheap headlines in this very sensitive atmosphere, trying to cynically exploit a very complex situation,” he told Israel Radio. Lieberman himself is a secular ultra-nationalist who in the past has made incendiary remarks about Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, but he has moderated his tone in recent months.
Overnight Wednesday, work crews erected barricades along the route of Jerusalem’s light rail system to prevent the kind of vehicular attack that occurred on Wednesday.
Once seen as a symbol of the Jerusalem unity that Israeli officials have long sought to project, it is now becoming am increasing focus of the city’s political tensions.