Israeli security forces shot and killed a man in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday night after he attempted to take an officer’s weapon, police said.
However, witnesses and family members denied the police version of events, saying that the man was “killed in cold blood” as they demanded the release of video footage of the shooting.
The incident occurred near the flashpoint Temple Mount as security forces were on alert during the sensitive Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The man was named as 26-year-old Mohammed Elasibi, a resident of the Bedouin town of Hura in southern Israel.
Police said Elasibi was stopped by officers for questioning when he attacked one of them, grabbed his firearm, and managed to fire off two shots during a struggle.
The officers felt threatened and responded with gunfire, “neutralizing him on the spot,” police said.
However, witnesses told the Ynet news site that Elasibi, who had reportedly recently completed his medical studies in Romania, did not pose a danger to the officers.
“Police officers were treating a woman inappropriately and he intervened and tried to help her — then they shot him. The shooting was completely unnecessary,” an unnamed witness said, noting that Elasibi was unarmed.
Witnesses told the Haaretz daily that the man was shot at close range, approximately ten times.
The Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department was looking into the incident, and would decide whether it warranted an investigation.
Elasibi’s family has called for the release of the video footage of the shooting near the Chain Gate, an entrance to the Temple Mount holy site.
“We know that every meter in the alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem is recorded and the police are supposed to be equipped with cameras,” Fahad Elasibi told Haaretz, questioning why the footage has not been released.
“Mohammed was murdered in cold blood without posing any danger. He is a successful person who studied medicine, and never thought of harming anyone,” relatives said in a statement to Ynet.
Police later doubled down on their version of events, and decried the “false reports” about the events, an apparent reference to the statements about the incident by Elasibi’s family and eyewitnesses.
Police on Saturday issued statements taken from several of the cops involved.
“I was checking the suspect, I asked him where he was from and asked him to leave as the area was closed at that time,” an officer identified only as ‘Mem,’ the first initial of his name, said. “He argued with me and I took him toward the exit. At a certain point the attacker turned to me, grabbed my gun and managed to fire a few bullets toward [Border Police] officers. I managed to take control of him within seconds, to get the weapon out of his hands and I neutralized him along with the second policeman with me.”
His partner ‘Yud’ said: “I felt our lives were in real danger. If I hadn’t tackled him, shot him and neutralized him, he would have shot me, my partner and the Border Police cops.”
A Border Police officer, ‘Lamed,’ backed up their testimony, saying the suspect “aimed the gun at my head” and that she hid behind a cement pillar as he fired. Another, ‘Mem,’ said “If the policeman hadn’t shot and neutralized him, we wouldn’t be here.”
Police officials held a situational assessment after the incident and deployed reinforcements to the area.
Police said that, contrary to reports circulating on social media, there were no significant disturbances on the Temple Mount or in the Old City.
Some Border Police were involved in minor scuffles, with video showing officers wielding batons and grappling with passersby on what appeared to be an Old City street.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) March 31, 2023
For Palestinian Muslims, worship at the site’s Al-Aqsa Mosque — the third-holiest site in Islam — is a central part of the Ramadan festival. Jews revere the same site as the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism as the location of the ancient Temples.
Security forces were already on alert in Jerusalem and the West Bank on Friday as tens of thousands of Muslims took part in mass prayers at the site on the second Friday of Ramadan.
Border Police deployed 2,300 soldiers in Jerusalem and its surroundings and in the West Bank, the force said in a statement.
According to official estimates, over 100,000 people took part in the prayers on the Temple Mount, including some 52,000 Palestinians who entered Israel from the West Bank.
The Muslim holy month, which began Thursday and will end April 21, often sees elevated Israeli-Palestinian tensions, with frictions already high this year in Jerusalem and across the West Bank following months of deadly violence.
The military has eased some restrictions on movement for West Bank and Gazan Palestinians to allow women, children and some men to pray there without permits.
Last Friday, prayers in Jerusalem passed without major incident, however, police detained one man suspected of incitement for hanging the banner of a terrorist organization at the complex.
Some officials have warned that this Ramadan may be the most difficult to handle in years, as tensions remained high amid a cycle of deadly Israeli raids in the West Bank and deadly Palestinian terror attacks, as well as an uptick in settler violence.
Palestinian terror attacks in Israel and the West Bank in recent months have left 15 dead and several more seriously hurt.
At least 86 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of the year, most of them while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces, though some were uninvolved civilians and others were killed under circumstances that are being investigated.