After deadly attack, Israel mulls new security strategy for Damascus Gate
Shin Bet says it has yet to verify various claims of responsibility for terror assault that killed Border Police officer Hadas Malka
Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.
Following a spate of deadly attacks at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, officials have started working on a plan to beef up security in the area that could involve turning it into a “sterile area,” police said Sunday
The latest attack Friday, in which 23-year-old border guard Hadas Malka was stabbed to death, was only the most recent at the Damascus Gate, which has seen dozens of stabbings and shooting attempts, many of them successful, over the past two years.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said he was considering turning the Damascus Gate area into a “sterile area,” but declined to elaborate on what that would mean.
Netanyahu repeated his call at the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting. “I have instructed the police to reinforce security arrangements and checking procedures in the plaza around Damascus Gate,” he said.
A police official said on Sunday that the discussions on if or how the security procedures around the busy Old City entrance would change were being held with “consultation from high-level political leadership.”
“A proposal was made, and the topic is still in the stages of study and discussion,” the spokesperson said.
“It’s still too early to establish [the plan] and make pronouncements,” she added.
The police said they were working with the Shin Bet security service to investigate how exactly the stabbing took place, including how an armed assailant was able to walk up behind an armed border guard without being noticed.
The Damascus Gate, the main entrance into the Muslim Quarter, is usually teeming with local residents and tourists and already has a constant, extensive presence of security personnel, with Border Police officers spread throughout the area on foot patrols, on horseback and behind barriers.
The police official would not elaborate on what measures were being discussed, if the new proposals would simply be a reinforcement of the current strategy or if the police would be setting up security checkpoints and metal detectors in the area surrounding the Damascus Gate.
Friday’s attack was carried out by three Palestinian men — Usama Ahmed Mustafa Atta, Adel Hassan Ahmad Ankush and Bra’a Ibrahim Muhammad Saleh Atta — from the West Bank village of Deir Abu-Mashal, near Ramallah.
In a well-organized attack, two members of the cell first opened fire at Border Police officers with automatic weapons and then the third jumped Malka from behind as her team responded to the initial gunfire. He stabbed her to death as she fought back and tried to shoot him. All three attackers were ultimately shot dead by border guards.
Shortly afterwards, the Islamic State terror group took responsibility for the attack. Hamas rejected the Islamic State’s claim, saying that it was carried out by “two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and a third from Hamas.”
The ongoing, though waning, terror wave that began in October 2015 has been marked by attacks carried out by so-called “lone wolves,” who act without direct organizational support or instruction, unlike in the Second Intifada when established terror groups directed the attacks.
The Shin Bet security service said Sunday that it was still investigating the various claims of responsibility but “at this point there has been no verification of the publications connecting Daesh” — the Islamic State’s Arabic nickname — “or other groups” to Friday’s attack.
The Islamic State’s claim of responsibly, though suspect, came as a surprise in Israel, which has yet to suffer an attack by the group of this nature. The group has carried out rocket attacks, and its predecessor Ansar Bait al-Maqdis also shot at Israeli troops.)
The month of Ramadan is seen as a particularly tense period in the West Bank and Israel. Last year saw the deadly Sarona Market terror attack, in which four people were killed and over a dozen were wounded, take place during Ramadan.
While there are heightened security fears during the month-long holiday, Israel also granted hundreds of thousands of special permits to Palestinians allowing them to enter Jerusalem in order to pray on the Temple Mount and visit family members in Israel.
Following Friday’s terror attack, Netanyahu rescinded some 250,000 special entry permits for Ramadan. He did not, however, revoke permission for West Bank males over 40 to enter Jerusalem for Ramadan prayers.
Since September 2015, mainly Palestinian assailants have killed 43 Israelis, two visiting Americans, a Palestinian man and a British student, mainly in stabbing, shooting and vehicular attacks. In that time, some 250 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, a majority of them attackers, according to authorities.
The Israeli government has blamed the terrorism and violence on incitement by Palestinian political and religious leaders compounded on social media sites that glorify violence and encourage attacks.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.