Israel presses security measures as Jews assaulted at holy site

Palestinians set ablaze an Israeli settler's car in Nablus, the West Bank, on Oct 18, 2015.
Palestinians set ablaze an Israeli settler's car in Nablus, the West Bank, on Oct 18, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel pressed ahead with major security measures Sunday (Oct 18) after five more stabbing incidents, while ultra-Orthodox Jews illegally visiting a West Bank holy site set ablaze last week were assaulted by Palestinians.

The incident at the holy site overnight and the stabbing attacks or attempts on Saturday came after more than two weeks of relentless violence and unrest, raising fears of a full-scale Palestinian uprising.

Israel has set up checkpoints in Palestinian areas of east Jerusalem, where many of the knife attackers have come from, and hundreds of soldiers have reinforced their patrols, but frustrated youths have defied efforts to prevent violence.

Most of the attackers have been young Palestinians wielding knives and believed to be acting on their own, likely knowing they will probably be killed.

Including alleged assailants, 41 Palestinians have been killed since an upsurge in violence began on Oct 1, while seven Israelis have lost their lives.

Violent protests have also erupted in annexed east Jerusalem, the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

On Saturday, four Palestinians were shot dead and a fifth was wounded in attacks on Israelis in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Three of Saturday's attacks took place in the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron, where some 500 Jewish settlers live in a heavily guarded enclave in the city centre surrounded by nearly 200,000 Palestinians.

A fourth was at a checkpoint in a Jewish settlement neighbourhood of Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, and a fifth at another checkpoint.

All of the incidents involved a Palestinian assailant attempting to stab an Israeli.

- Incident at holy site -

Meanwhile overnight, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews attempting to illegally visit a holy site in the West Bank set ablaze last week were assaulted by Palestinians while five were also arrested, Israeli authorities said.

Palestinians torched the site holy to Jews on Friday in an incident that threatened to further inflame tensions.

The incident saw a group of about 30 religious students from a school in Jerusalem travel to Joseph's Tomb in the northern West Bank city of Nablus despite not having the required authorisation from Israel's military.

They told police they intended to repaint the shrine after the fire.

According to Israeli authorities, Palestinian police beat at least some of them with their batons and the butts of their guns. A group of Palestinian civilians arrived afterward and also beat them, according to Israeli police.

They were not reported to have been seriously injured.

A Palestinian security source denied that police had beat them but said that dozens of civilians arrived later and burned one of the cars used by the Jewish students. Israeli police also said one of their cars had been burned.

Most of the students fled, but five were arrested by Palestinian police and later handed over to Israeli authorities, according to Israeli police. The Palestinian source reported three arrested.

Those arrested were to be presented to a judge on accusations of violating a military order after being examined at hospital.

Israeli police called the students' visit "completely irresponsible" and said the incident "could have ended tragically".

Joseph's Tomb, inside a compound in the Palestinian refugee camp of Balata in Nablus, has been the scene of recurring violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Many Jews believe it to be the final resting place of the biblical patriarch Joseph, while Muslims believe an Islamic cleric, Sheikh Yussef (Joseph) Dawiqat, was buried there two centuries ago.

The shrine is under Palestinian control and off-limits to Israelis except on escorted trips organised by the army.

- International observers -

The violence since the start of the month has drawn deep international concern.

The United States, which tried but failed last year to broker peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, has urged leaders on both sides to help rein in the unrest.

"We are very concerned about the outbreak of violence," US President Barack Obama said in Washington Friday, calling on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas "to try to tamp down rhetoric that may feed violence or anger or misunderstanding".

The violence began on Oct 1, when a suspected cell of the Islamist movement Hamas murdered a Jewish settler couple in the West Bank in front of their children.

The attack followed repeated clashes in September between Israeli forces and Palestinian youths at east Jerusalem's flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound.

Muslims fear Israel will seek to change rules governing the site, though Netanyahu has said repeatedly he has no intention of doing so.

Israel has rejected a proposal by France to have international observers sent to the compound, saying it "rewards the terrorism that the Palestinians initiated."