Gaza City – An Israeli airstrike on a car near a crowded park in downtown Gaza City killed two suspected militants on Thursday, the second such attack this week after a period of relative calm along the Israeli-Gaza border.
Similar flare-ups have in the past escalated into a wider confrontations between Israel and Hamas-ruled Gaza. After Thursday’s strike, Israel’s military alleged the two men in the car had planned to infiltrate Israel to attack soldiers and civilians, but provided no details.
It said one of the militants had been involved in a suicide bombing in Israel five years ago that killed three Israeli civilians. It identified the other as his nephew, a member of Hamas’ military wing.
The car was near a crowded park in downtown Gaza when it was struck. The missile set off an explosion that turned the car into a ball of fire. Onlookers arriving moments later saw the body of a man sprawled near the vehicle with much of his head missing. A dismembered leg and hand of a second person lay on the ground nearby.
Five bystanders were also wounded in the blast, said Adham Abu Salima, an official in the Gaza Health Ministry.
Ihab Ghussein, spokesman for the Gaza Interior Ministry, said the airstrike was “an unjustified crime committed in a populated area and is part of a recent escalation against the Gaza Strip.”
Israel repeatedly has targeted vehicles carrying suspected militants in missile strikes, including an attack early Wednesday that killed one militant and wounded two.
In another source of friction, Jerusalem municipal officials announced they would shut down a walkway to a contested shrine at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a move liable to touch off a new round of violence between Muslims and Jews in the volatile holy city.
Any work in the area around the Old City compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary draws fierce condemnation and sometimes violence from Palestinians, many of whom suspect Israel wants to harm Muslim shrines. An official with the Muslim clerical body that runs the complex warned that protests were liable to break out this time, too.
The municipality says the wooden walkway leading to one of the hilltop site’s gates — built as a temporary structure after a centuries-old ramp was damaged in a 2004 snowstorm — is a fire hazard and structurally unsound and must be replaced.
In a letter released Thursday, Jerusalem city engineer Shlomo Eshkol informed authorities of his plan to block access to the walkway to all but security forces. The shutdown could take place immediately after a one-week public comment period.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu halted a plan to demolish the walkway last month, fearing a Muslim backlash at a time when pre-election violence was roiling neighboring Egypt. A spokesman for Netanyahu was not available Thursday for comment on the Jerusalem municipality’s latest move.
The walkway is not the only access to the contested complex, which Israel captured from Jordan along with the rest of east Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war. But the compound’s centrality to both Islam and Judaism makes it one of the most combustible sites in the world. Clashes there in the past have ignited broader violence.
Muslims believe their Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from the site, which is home to the golden-capped Dome of the Rock shrine and the Al-Aqsa mosque. It is Islam’s third-holiest shrine.
The compound is venerated by Jews as the site of their biblical temples. The Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, stands at the foot of the complex, and a women’s prayer area is situated right near the walkway.
A Muslim clerical trust known as the Waqf runs the compound under Israel’s overall security control.
Yusuf Natsheh, director of the Waqf administration, said the Waqf was not consulted about the plan to shut down the walkway, which he called a “disastrous” policy liable to touch off protests.
“This is a very sensitive issue,” he said. “It is so close to the mosque, and Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims … all over the world will be unhappy.”
They think Israelis are “eradicating their historic road, they are eradicating their heritage” under the guise of security concerns, he said.
Nearly five years ago, hundreds of Israeli police fired stun grenades and tear gas to disperse thousands of Muslim worshippers who hurled stones, bottles and trash in outrage over earlier Israeli repair work in the area.