Israel bars Palestinians after Tel Aviv attack

Israeli passers-by light candles on June 9 next to the restaurant that was targeted in the shooting attack in Tel Aviv.
Israeli passers-by light candles on June 9 next to the restaurant that was targeted in the shooting attack in Tel Aviv.PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel temporarily barred Palestinians from entering the country on Friday, a step criticised by the UN but which officials said was because of a shooting which killed four people in Tel Aviv.

An army spokeswoman told AFP that crossings to Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be closed for Palestinians in all but “medical and humanitarian cases”.

She said the closure would remain in force until midnight on Sunday.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said later that the move could raise tensions and lead to more terror attacks.

The measures came during the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when tens of thousands of Palestinians visit the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem to pray.

A spokeswoman for COGAT, the defence ministry unit which manages civilian affairs in the occupied West Bank, said about 10,000 Palestinians were allowed to visit Al-Aqsa despite the ban.

The worshippers had to return home after Friday prayers, the spokeswoman said.

Palestinian men between 12 and 35 were not allowed to enter the mosque, with those between 35 and 45 needing permission and those older than 45 having unrestricted access, police confirmed.

Passage was unrestricted for women.

Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Islamic Waqf which administers Al-Aqsa, said 100,000 people attended on Friday prayers, down from more than 200,000 the year before.

Police declined to give a specific figure, giving an estimate of tens of thousands.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his security Cabinet on Thursday and announced a slew of measures against Palestinians after Wednesday’s shooting in a popular Tel Aviv nightspot, the deadliest attack in a months-long wave of violence.

Among the measures, the government said it was revoking entry permits for more than 80,000 Palestinians to visit relatives in Israel during Ramadan.

It also revoked work permits for 204 of the attackers’ relatives and the army blockaded their West Bank hometown of Yatta, with soldiers patrolling and stopping cars.

The government also said it was sending two additional battalions – amounting to hundreds more troops – into the occupied West Bank.

United Nations rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s office in a statement on Friday condemned the attack but said the Israeli measures may amount to “collective punishment”.

“The measures taken against the broader population punish not the perpetrators of the crime, but tens – maybe hundreds – of thousands of innocent Palestinians,” it said.

Newly installed Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman ordered that the bodies of Palestinians killed while carrying out attacks would no longer be returned to their families for burial, a spokesman said.

The policy is backed by Israeli hawks as a deterrent measure.

Israel last closed its crossings for two days in May during its Remembrance Day and Independence Day commemorations.

A closure is often imposed over Jewish holidays, when large numbers of Israelis congregate to pray or celebrate, presenting a potential target for Palestinian attacks.

The start of April’s Passover festival saw this type of shutdown.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said the police in Jerusalem would safeguard both Muslim and Jewish prayer at the city’s holy sites over the weekend, which will also see the Jewish festival of Shavuot begin late Saturday.

“We of course want to allow (Jewish) worshippers here in the Old City and throughout Jerusalem to pray in safety and also for Muslims to get here freely and allow them freedom of worship,” he said in an address broadcast from the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.

“We are in the wake of a harsh attack and we continue today to bury some of those murdered in the attack,” Erdan said.

“The security forces and the police are doing everything they can, every day, and during the holiday ahead of us.”

Violence since October has killed at least 207 Palestinians, 32 Israelis, two Americans, an Eritrean and a Sudanese.

Most of the Palestinians were carrying out knife, gun or car-ramming attacks, Israeli authorities say.

Others were killed in clashes with security forces or by Israeli air strikes in the Gaza Strip.

The violence had declined in recent weeks before Wednesday’s deadly shooting.