October 09, 2016 - 11:10 AM
JERUSALEM - A Palestinian militant carried out a drive-by shooting near the national headquarters of the Israeli police in Jerusalem Sunday, killing two people and wounding five others before being shot dead following a frenzied chase through the streets of the holy city, Israeli police and emergency services said.
The attack, carried out in broad daylight by a member of the Hamas militant group with a long police record, was one of the bloodiest during a yearlong spate of Palestinian assaults. Israel had beefed up security in recent weeks, warning that the potential for violence could rise during the current Jewish high holiday season.
"This past year has not been easy," President Reuven Rivlin said in a statement calling for national unity. "Time after time, just as today, the civilian home front found itself to be the front line."
In Washington, the State Department condemned the shooting in the "strongest possible terms." Spokesman Mark Toner said there is "absolutely no justification for the taking of innocent lives." He also condemned statements "glorifying this reprehensible and cowardly attack."
The police headquarters has been a frequent location of attacks, both because of the large number of officers in the vicinity and because of its location along the invisible line between predominantly Jewish west Jerusalem and the Palestinian neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem.
Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said the attacker sped toward a busy stop of the city's light rail and opened fire, hitting a 60-year-old woman. He continued driving and shot another woman who was seated in her car before speeding off toward an Arab neighbourhood in east Jerusalem.
Samri said police officers on motorcycles chased the assailant, who eventually stepped out of his vehicle and opened fire at them. A separate police force ultimately shot and killed the attacker, Samri said.
The Israeli national rescue service, Mada, said two people were killed. Police identified one of the dead as a 29-year-old officer, Yosef Kirma. The 60-year-old woman, identified as Levanah Malichi, also died.
Police said the shooter was a 39-year-old man from the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan. They did not release his name. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the shooter had used a .556-calibre automatic rifle, in contrast to the crude, homemade firearms typically used in past attacks. He said police were trying to determine how the shooter had obtained the weapon.
Israeli media reported the man had previously served multiple sentences for violent acts and was due to report to prison Sunday for another sentence over assaulting a police officer.
The Hamas militant group stopped short of claiming responsibility for the attack. But in a statement issued in the Gaza Strip, it identified the shooter as Musbah Abu Sbaih, an activist known as the "Lion of Al Aqsa."
The group said he had been arrested by Israel five times in recent weeks and had been ordered to stay away from east Jerusalem and the Al Aqsa Mosque.
It said he had been summoned earlier Sunday to begin serving a four-month term of "administrative detention," in which Israel can hold suspected militants without charging them.
"Instead of handing himself over, he chose the best way of the holy warriors, to carry out a heroic attack," the group said.
The pro-Hamas al-Quds TV station later broadcast a video in which Abu Sbaih calls for "vigilance."
"I tell the occupation: Despite your massacres, we are here with steadfastness in our Jerusalem and the holy mosque of Al Aqsa," he says. It was not clear when the video was recorded.
Later Sunday, Israeli forces clashed with stone-throwing Palestinian youths during an arrest raid in al-Ram, a West Bank village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Palestinian witnesses said the father of the shooter was arrested by forces. The military said it dispersed the crowds with "riot dispersal means," including rubber-coated bullets. Two soldiers were lightly wounded.
While covering the clashes, Associated Press photographer Majdi Mohammed was lightly wounded in the shoulder by a rubber bullet that he said was fired at him from just 10 metres (11 yards) away. Israeli Military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner and Rosenfeld, the police spokesman, said the incident was being investigated.
Sunday's attack in Jerusalem was the deadliest on Israelis since June 8, when two Palestinians opened fire and killed four people at a popular Tel Aviv food market.
The Palestinian attacks began around the Jewish holidays a year ago. Since then, they have killed 36 Israelis and two visiting Americans. About 219 Palestinians have been killed during that period. Israel says most of the dead were attackers, though Palestinians have accused Israel of using excessive violence.
Israel has blamed the violence on incitement by Palestinian political and religious leaders, compounded on social media sites. The Palestinians say it is rooted in some 50 years of military occupation and dwindling hopes for independence.
Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan said there were no specific warnings of an attack ahead of time and the quick response of security forces on the scene prevented a deadlier result. He repeated his previous criticism of social media sites that allow militants to spread their messages of incitement.
"It has an impact. It pushes people out to the streets to commits acts of murder and terror," he said.
Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.
News from © The Associated Press, 2016