Two Israeli policemen shot dead near Jerusalem holy site, gunmen killed

JERUSALEM, July 14 (Reuters) - Three Arab-Israeli gunmen shot dead two Israeli policemen near one of Jerusalem's most holy places on Friday, and were then killed by security forces, police said.

It was one of the most serious attacks so close to the volatile holy site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in years.

Israeli authorities shut the area to Muslims gathering for Friday prayers afterwards, drawing a call for resistance from Palestinian religious leaders.

The Palestinian Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Hussein, called on Palestinians to defy the closure, and was later reported to have been detained.

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 Israeli policemen check the body of an assailant after he was shot dead by Israeli police at the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City July 14, 2017 REUTERS/Ammar Awad 
Israeli policemen examine the scene of the shooting attack at the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City July 14, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
 Israeli policemen carry the body of an assailant after he was shot dead by Israeli police at the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City July 14, 2017 REUTERS/Ammar Awad
 Israeli policemen check the body of an assailant after he was shot dead by Israeli police at the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City July 14, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
An Israeli border policeman secures the entrance to the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City July 14, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
An Israeli border policeman secures the entrance to the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City July 14, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Israeli policemen secure the scene of the shooting attack at the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City July 14, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but also said closing down the area could have repercussions.

The three gunmen arrived at the sacred site, which stands on a marble and stone plateau on the edge of Jerusalem's Old City, and walked towards one of the nearby ancient stone gates, police spokeswoman Luba Simri said.

"When they saw policemen they shot towards them and then escaped towards one of the mosques in the Temple Mount compound," Simri said. "A chase ensued and the three terrorists were killed by police."

She said three firearms were found on their bodies. The Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, said the gunmen were all Arab citizens of Israel who were unknown to the authorities.

Mobile phone video footage aired by Israeli media showed several police chasing a man and shooting him at the site, a popular place for foreign tourists to visit.

The two policemen killed were Israeli Arab citizens from the country's Druze community. The Israeli ambulance service Magen David Adom said a third policeman was lightly wounded in the incident.

Tensions are often high around the compound, which houses the Aqsa Mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock. It is managed by Jordanian religious authorities and is adjacent to the Western Wall, a holy site where Jews are permitted to pray.

PRAYERS CANCELLED

Police said Friday prayers for Muslims would not be held at the site following the attack for security reasons, while forces scanned the area for weapons and investigated the incident.

The compound has served as a tinder-box for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the past. Under a delicate status quo agreement, Jews are allowed to enter the compound under closer supervision but only Muslims are permitted to pray.

The closure prompted hundreds of Muslim worshippers to gather outside the walled Old City gates and hold prayers there.

Authorities have often restricted access to the Aqsa mosque when concerned about possible violence there, but a total shutdown is rare.

"We completely reject the ban by Israeli authorities," Grand Mufti Hussein told Reuters by telephone. "We have urged our Palestinian people to rush to al Aqsa today and every day to hold their prayers."

In an apparent effort to ease tensions, Netanyahu said in a statement there would be no change to the status quo in which only Muslim prayer is permitted, a message he reiterated in his phone call with Abbas, according to Netanyahu's office.

Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group think-tank, said images of the gunman being shot dead at the sacred site made the situation even more volatile.

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JERUSALEM, Oct. 6, 2016 -- Jewish worshippers take part in Slichot, a prayer in which Jews offer repentance and ask God for forgiveness, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, Oct. 6, 2016. (Xinhua/Gil Cohen Magen via Getty Images)
Ultra Orthodox Jewish boys are seen during a ceremony at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site in Jerusalem's Old City March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
David Friedman, new United States Ambassador to Israel, kisses the Western Wall after arriving in the Jewish state on Monday and immediately paying a visit to the main Jewish holy site, in Jerusalem's Old City May 15, 2017 REUTERS/Ammar Awad TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Notes are seen placed in the cracks of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, as people clear space for new notes ahead of the Jewish holiday of Passover, in Jerusalem's Old City March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Jewish people wearing 'Talit' (prayer shawls) take part in the Cohanim prayer (priest's blessing) during the Passover (Pesach) holiday at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, on April 13, 2017. Thousands of Jews make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the eight-day Pesach holiday, which commemorates the Israelites' exodus from slavery in Egypt some 3,500 years ago and their plight by refraining from eating leavened food products. / AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, touches the Western Wall as he stands next to Britain's Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis during their visit to the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy stands beneath Jewish prayer shawls during the priestly blessing prayer on the holiday of Passover at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
David Friedman, new United States Ambassador to Israel visits the Western Wall after arriving in the Jewish state on Monday and immediately paying a visit to the main Jewish holy site, in Jerusalem's Old City May 15, 2017 REUTERS/Ammar Awad
People release balloons as they celebrate a Bar Mitzvah, a traditional Jewish coming of age ceremony, as the Western Wall (right-hand corner) and the Dome of the Rock are seen in the background, in Jerusalem's Old City February 20, 2017. Picture taken February 20, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Men clear notes placed in the cracks of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, to clear space for new notes ahead of the Jewish holiday of Passover, in Jerusalem's Old City March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Jewish worshippers are seen from above during the priestly blessing prayer on the holiday of Passover, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on Tisha B'Av, August 14, 2016. Tisha B'Av, a day of fasting and lament, commemorates the date in the Jewish calendar on which it is believed that First and Second Temples were destroyed in Jerusalem. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish worshippers pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on Tisha B'Av, August 14, 2016. Tisha B'Av, a day of fasting and lament, commemorates the date in the Jewish calendar on which it is believed that First and Second Temples were destroyed in Jerusalem. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Jewish people take part in the Cohanim prayer (priest's blessing) during the Passover (Pesach) holiday at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 13, 2017, with the Dome of the Rock seen in the background. Thousands of Jews make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the eight-day Pesach holiday, which commemorates the Israelites' exodus from slavery in Egypt some 3,500 years ago and their plight by refraining from eating leavened food products / AFP PHOTO / Thomas COEX (Photo credit should read THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)
An aerial view shows the Dome of the Rock (R) on the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, and the Western Wall (L) in Jerusalem's Old City October 10, 2006. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte/File Photo
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - JANUARY 17: People pray at the Western Wall in the Old City on January 17, 2017 in Jerusalem, Israel. 70 countries attended the recent Paris Peace Summit and called on Israel and Palestinians to resume negotiations that would lead to a two-state solution, however the recent proposal by U.S President-elect Donald Trump to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and last month's U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank have contributed to continued uncertainty across the region. The ancient city of Jerusalem where Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for thousands of years and is home to the Al Aqsa Mosque compound or for Jews The Temple Mount, continues to be a focus as both Israelis and Palestinians claim the city as their capital. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has continued since 1947 when Resolution 181 was passed by the United Nations, dividing Palestinian territories into Jewish and Arab states. The Israeli settlement program has continued to cause tension as new settlements continue to encroach on land within the Palestinian territories. The remaining Palestinian territory is made up of the West Bank and the Gaza strip. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev touches the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's Old City in Jerusalem, on November 10, 2016. / AFP / POOL / Dan Balilty (Photo credit should read DAN BALILTY/AFP/Getty Images)
A Western Wall employee removes messages and prayers, written on pieces of paper by thousands of people 'addressed to God', from the cracks of the Jewish holy site in Jerusalem's Old City on September 27, 2016, in preparation for the upcoming Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana (New Year prayer). The feast that begins on October 2 marks the start of the 5777 year since the creation of the world according to the Jewish calendar. / AFP / MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio places a note in the Western Wall during a visit in Jerusalem's Old City October 18, 2015. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Jewish worshippers are seen from above during the priestly blessing prayer on the holiday of Passover, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touches the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, during a visit in Jerusalem's Old City February 28, 2015. REUTERS/Marc Sellem/Pool (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION TRAVEL TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands next to the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, during a visit in Jerusalem's Old City February 28, 2015. REUTERS/Marc Sellem/Pool (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION TRAVEL)
Pope Francis touches the stones of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City May 26, 2014. Pope Francis, at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, visited on Monday Israel's "Memorial to the Victims of Terror", a day after praying at an Israeli security wall abhorred by Palestinians. REUTERS/Andrew Medichini/Pool (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION)
Pope Francis and the Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitch walk towards the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City May 26, 2014. Pope Francis, at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, visited on Monday Israel's "Memorial to the Victims of Terror", a day after praying at an Israeli security wall abhorred by Palestinians. REUTERS/Andrew Medichini/Pool (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION)
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"This can have much broader impact because defending al Aqsa is at the core of Palestinian nationalism," Zalzberg told Reuters. "Israel's response of closing access entirely to Muslims in attempt to deter further attacks actually exacerbates the crisis."

An aide to Hussein said the Mufti was later detained by police at the Old City. A police spokesman could not confirm that report. Reuters video footage showed the Mufti being escorted away by a man in plain clothes, through a crowd of Palestinians gathered near the compound gate.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack, though the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, praised it.

A wave of Palestinian street attacks that began in 2015 has slowed but not stopped. At least 257 Palestinians and one Jordanian citizen have been killed since the violence began. A few of the attacks were carried out by Arab Israeli citizens.

Israel says at least 176 of those killed were carrying out attacks while others died in clashes and protests. Forty Israelis, two U.S. tourists and a British student have been killed in stabbings, shootings and car-rammings.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem, where the Old City and the holy compound are located, after the 1967 Middle East war and regards all of Jerusalem as its capital, a claim not recognized internationally.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they hope to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta, Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ammar Awad and Luke Baker; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by; Editing by Luke Baker/Jeremy Gaunt)

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