RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel sent more troops to the West Bank on Saturday, a day after a Palestinian stabbed to death three members of an Israeli family in their home and widespread Israeli-Palestinian clashes erupted over escalating tensions at the Holy Land’s most contested shrine.
The father of the 20-year-old Palestinian assailant said he believes his son was upset over the loss of Palestinian lives and wanted to protect the “honor” of the Jerusalem holy site.
A senior Israeli government official blamed the latest round of violence on what he said was Palestinian incitement against Israel and called on Palestinian leaders to help restore calm.
Disputes over the shrine, revered by Muslims and Jews, have set off major rounds of Israeli-Palestinian confrontations in the past. They were also at the root of the current violence which began last week when Arab gunmen fired from the shrine, killing two Israeli policemen.
In response, Israel installed metal detectors at the gates of the 37-acre (15-hectare) walled compound, portraying the devices as a needed security measure to prevent more attacks.
Christian leaders in the Holy Land have expressed “serious concern” over the escalation of violence at the site.
The Heads of Churches in Jerusalem — which includes the leaders of local Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities — issued a statement on the conflict on Wednesday.
“We are worried about any change to historical (Status Quo) situation in al-Aqsa Mosque (Haram ash-Sharif) and its courtyard, and in the holy city of Jerusalem,” the statement reads. “Any threat to its continuity and integrity could easily lead to serious and unpredictable consequences, which would be most unwelcome in the present tense religious climate.”
Muslims alleged Israel was trying to expand its control at the Muslim-administered site under the guise of security — a claim Israel denies — and launched mass prayer protests.
On Friday, anger boiled over and several thousand Palestinians clashed with Israeli security forces in the West Bank and in Jerusalem after noon prayers, the highlight of the Muslim religious week. Three Palestinians were killed and several dozen wounded by live rounds and bullets in some of the worst street clashes in two years.
On Friday evening, a Palestinian identified as Omar al-Abed jumped over the fence of the Israeli settlement of Halamish in the West Bank and entered a home, surprising a family during their Sabbath dinner.
The Israeli military said the assailant killed a man and two of his adult children, while a woman was wounded. A neighbor heard the screams, rushed to the home and opened fire, wounding al-Abed who was taken to an Israeli hospital, said the head of Israel’s rescue service.
A photo released by the military showed a kitchen floor covered with blood.
Itai Orayon, a medic, said he found “blood everywhere” in the house. He told Israel Army Radio that three people were on the floor, unconscious “with deep stab wounds all over their bodies,” and that the medical team was unable to save them.
On Saturday morning, Israeli troops searched the assailant’s family home in the West Bank village of Kobar and detained one of his brothers, the army said. Video footage released by the military shows soldiers leading away a handcuffed and blindfolded man.
The army said soldiers searched the house and measured it in preparation for demolition.
The assailant’s father said his son had been angered by the escalation at the Jerusalem shrine, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
“The honor of Muslims is only the Haram,” Mohammed al-Abed said. “If it’s gone, the Muslims’ honor is gone. This was the motive for my son.”
Ibrahim al-Abed, an uncle of the assailant, said his nephew had been arrested three months ago by security forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who presides over autonomous enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The uncle said his nephew had spent two weeks in detention and was violently interrogated about alleged plans to attack Israelis before he was released.
The assailant said in a pre-attack Facebook post that he expected to be killed in the attack. He wrote that he wanted his body to be covered by a banner of the Islamic militant Hamas and a photo of Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat, founder of Hamas’ main rival, the Fatah movement.
Israel has repeatedly accused Abbas and his Palestinian Authority of permitting anti-Israeli incitement in the public Palestinian discourse.
Michael Oren, a deputy minister for public diplomacy, alleged Saturday that Hamas and Abbas’s government are exploiting tensions to incite violence. He said claims that Israel intends to change delicate arrangements at the Muslim-administered Jerusalem shrine are “emphatically untrue.”
Abbas has rejected Israeli incitement allegations, saying Israel’s 50-year-old occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state is at the root of widespread Palestinian anger and helps drive violence.
Abbas is a staunch opponent of violence and in 12 years in power has stuck to security coordination between his forces and Israeli troops against a common enemy — Hamas.
On Friday evening, Abbas announced that he would “freeze” ties with Israel “on all levels” until the metal detectors are removed from the shrine, but did not say whether this means halting security coordination. Ending such ties would have far-reaching repercussions and sharply raise tensions with Israel.
Oren suggested Abbas’s rule wouldn’t survive long without security coordination with Israel, and that cutting such ties “cuts off the limb on which he sits.”
Even if largely meant for domestic Palestinian consumption, the Abbas announcement dealt a setback to fledgling efforts by the Trump administration to revive long-dormant Israeli-Palestinian talks on a peace deal.
Such efforts now seem moot as Israelis and Palestinians refuse to budge in the showdown over the shrine and violence threatens to escalate.
Israel’s military said Saturday it sent more troops to the West Bank. It did not elaborate but said the decision came after hundreds of troops were deployed Friday.
Israel’s chief of staff and defense minister visited the Halamish settlement, the scene of the stabbing attack, on Saturday.
Associated Press writer Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed reporting.