Israeli police have shot and killed a man who they alleged tried to snatch an officer’s gun at an entrance to a Jerusalem holy site.
Authorities said officers had detained the man for questioning early on Saturday outside the sacred compound home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City — the third holiest shrine in Islam.
The compound, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, is also the most sacred site in Judaism.
Police said the man was 26-year-old Mohammed Alasibi from Hura, a Bedouin Arab village in southern Israel.
Palestinian worshippers at the entrance to the site on Saturday morning had a different account, saying police shot the man at least 10 times after he tried to prevent them from harassing a woman on her way to the compound.
Israeli Arab politicians identified Alasibi as a physician who had recently passed his exams and earned his MD in Romania. They condemned his killing and demanded that Israeli police release security camera footage of the incident.
“He was killed in cold blood after finishing his prayers,” said prominent Arab legislator Ahmad Tibi. “As with previous crimes committed by the police, we are accustomed to many false narratives.”
The incident raised fears of further violence during a time of heightened tensions at the flashpoint compound, which has been a focus for clashes in the past, particularly in times of turmoil in Israel and the West Bank.
This year, as violence surges in the occupied territory under the most right-wing government in Israeli history, fears of an escalation in Jerusalem have mounted with the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Israeli police have boosted their forces in the area as tens of thousands of Muslim worshippers from Jerusalem and the West Bank gather for prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
On Friday, more than 200,000 Palestinians gathered for noon prayers at the compound, which passed peacefully.
Just after midnight on Saturday, police said Alasibi attacked one of the officers and grabbed his gun, managing to fire two bullets into the air as the officer struggled to restrain him.
Police described the incident as an attempted terrorist attack and said they shot and killed him in self-defence.
But Palestinian worshippers insisted the man was not a terrorist. Noureddine, a 17-year-old who lives in the neighbourhood and declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals, said he saw Alasibi confront police who had stopped a female worshipper on her way to the mosque.
He said some kind of disagreement broke out before he heard a dozen shots.
“Nothing could justify that many shots,” he added, pointing to chaotic footage he filmed that showed Palestinian vendors and worshippers screaming at the sound of bullets being fired in rapid succession. “They were all at close range.”
Noureddine said police tried to force Palestinian vendors and worshippers out of the area after the incident, beating him and others with batons. Israeli police briefly closed the site before reopening it for dawn prayers.
Confrontations at the hilltop compound have triggered wider violence in the region in the past. Clashes at the site in May 2021 helped fuel the outbreak of a bloody 11-day war between Israel and the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers.
This year’s convergence of Ramadan with the Jewish holiday of Passover could increase the possibility of friction as the Old City hosts a large influx of pilgrims.
Early on Saturday, residents of the Old City shared videos of Israeli police entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound to remove a banner belonging to the Islamic militant group Hamas hanging over the shrine that called worshippers to confront right-wing Jews planning to tour the compound on Sunday.
Settlers in the Old City, and devout Jewish Israelis, have visited the Temple Mount in rising numbers in recent years. Under a long-standing agreement known as the status quo, Jews are allowed to visit but not pray at the site. Any small perceived change to the status quo at the site can trigger violence.
For the past year, Israeli-Palestinian fighting has surged in the occupied West Bank. At least 86 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli or settler gunfire this year, according to an Associated Press tally. Palestinian attacks against Israelis have killed 15 people in the same period.
Israel says most of those killed have been militants, but stone-throwing youths protesting over police incursions and people not involved in the confrontations have also been killed.