Police were bracing for potential unrest Sunday in Jerusalem as the Temple Mount reopened for worshipers for the first time in two months, a day after an autistic East Jerusalem man was shot dead by officers who mistakenly believed him to be armed.
The Temple Mount compound had been closed since late March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The holy site opened in the predawn hours of Sunday morning under limitations.
Singing “God is greatest, we will protect Al-Aqsa with our soul and blood,, the group was welcomed by the mosque’s director Omar al-Kiswani, who thanked them for their patience.
The mosques at the compound, Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, will remain closed for visitors for now, but prayers will be held in the open in marked sections, each holding up to 50 people.
But the opening of the compound, which has been the scene of many clashes and violent outbursts during times of tension, comes at a particularly fraught moment, with Border Police’s killing of 32-year-old Iyad Halak on Saturday morning sparking outrage among Palestinians.
Halak was shot dead in Jerusalem’s Old City, with police saying he had appeared to be holding a gun. Halak was unarmed and had apparently not understood officers’ orders to halt as he passed near the Lion’s Gate. He reportedly fled on foot and hid in a garbage room.
The policemen gave conflicting accounts of the events with a commander telling investigators he had urged his subordinate to cease fire, an order that was not followed, he said, according to reports in the Hebrew media. The officer denied the commander’s account.
The two were questioned under caution on Saturday. The officer was placed under house arrest and his commander was released from custody under restrictive conditions.
Investigators were looking into whether Halak was shot only after taking refuge in the garbage room, and not during the foot chase. Hebrew media reported there were at least seven shots fired toward Halak.
Halak had been on his way to a special needs educational institute in the Old City where he studied. His father told the Kan public broadcaster he believed his son was holding his cellphone when he was first spotted by the police.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party denounced the shooting as a “war crime.” It said it holds Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fully responsible for the “execution of a young disabled man.”
Activists protests over the killing in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv Saturday night. In Jerusalem some 300 rallied in the city center, calling out against Israeli occupation and police violence. Several dozen people demonstrated outside a police station in Jaffa, calling for “justice for Iyad.”
Amir Ohana, the new public security minister who oversees police, expressed sorrow for Halak’s death and vowed to investigate. But he said it was early to “pass sentence” on the police officers involved, noting that they “are required to make fateful decisions in seconds in an area that has been inundated with terror attacks, and in which there is a constant danger to their lives.”
Hala’s father, Kheiri Hayak, told Channel 13 news that police searched the family home after the shooting, despite there being no evidence Halak was armed. “They found nothing,” he said.
Hayak said his son walked to the educational institute on the same route every morning and that police forces had likely seen him before. He told Channel 13 the incident occurred close to the entrance to the institute, about 100 meters away.
His mother told Hebrew media that he was “killed in cold blood.”
“What did he do that they murdered him?” Rena Halak told the Ynet news site. “I lost an angel. They said he had a weapon. Why would someone with special needs need a weapon?”
MK Ofer Cassif of the predominantly-Arab Joint List party said Halak’s death was “murder by police” as a result of government incitement.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid, whose daughter is autistic, said Halak’s death was “heartbreaking.”
In a statement on Saturday afternoon, police rebuffed the criticism by politicians, calling them “vitriolic and irresponsible.”
“The roles and missions of the police forces in Jerusalem, and especially in the Old City, are particularly complex and often involve [making] complex decisions, sacrifices and life endangerment,” police said.
Police said the area has seen multiple attacks in recent years, including against officers and Border Patrol forces.
Calling the death a “rare incident,” the police said the case was immediately referred for an internal affairs investigation. “It is appropriate to wait for the results of the investigation before reaching any definitive conclusions, and to avoid the ugly slander… of those who, on a daily basis, protect the security of Israeli citizens,” the statement read.