Israel started setting up roadblocks in Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and deploying soldiers in cities across the country on Wednesday to try to combat the worst surge of violence in months.
Palestinian officials condemned the security measures – the most serious clampdown in the Jerusalem area since a Palestinian uprising a decade ago – as collective punishment.
Israel’s security cabinet had authorized the crackdown hours earlier in an overnight session after Palestinians armed with knives and a gun killed three Israelis and wounded several others on Tuesday.
Seven Israelis and 30 Palestinians, including children and assailants, have been killed in two weeks of bloodshed in Israel, Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.
The violence has been partly triggered by Palestinians’ anger over what they see as increased Jewish encroachment on Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, also revered by Jews as the site of two destroyed Jewish temples.
There is also deep-seated frustration with the failure of years of peace efforts to achieve Palestinian statehood and end Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israeli paramilitary border police used their vehicles to block an exit at the edge of Jabel Mukabar, an East Jerusalem neighborhood and home to three Palestinians who carried out deadly attacks against Israelis on Tuesday.
Policemen carried out body searches and examined the identity papers of Palestinian motorists. Cars were then allowed to leave. Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem carry the same identity papers as Israelis and unlike brethren in the West Bank can travel throughout Israel.
Dimitrii Delliani, an official in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement, said closing entrances to Palestinian neighborhoods was “collective punishment in violation of all international law”.
“(Israeli) cabinet decisions will not stop the Intifada (uprising). People of resistance do not fear new security restrictions,” Hussam Badrawn, a spokesman for the militant Hamas group in the West Bank said.
The government said the immediate aim was to stem stabbings and other attacks by Arab assailants, many of whom resided in Jerusalem’s eastern sectors.
One Israeli official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said Palestinian neighborhoods would not be sealed off completely, describing the measure as “loose encirclement”.
Israel regards all Jerusalem, including the predominantly Arab east captured and annexed in 1967, as its “indivisible capital” – a claim that is not recognized internationally – and its right-wing government is wary as being portrayed as dividing the city.
“No one is going to lock down East Jerusalem,” Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said on Army Radio.
At a Jerusalem bus stop where a Palestinian from Jabel Mukabar stabbed and killed an Israeli man on Tuesday before being shot dead, an Israeli woman sounded a defiant note.
“They want us to be afraid so we have to do the opposite,” said the woman, who identified herself only as Jana.
Merchants in predominantly Jewish west Jerusalem reported a sharp drop-off in the number of shoppers.
“You can see it’s almost empty here … but we are (in Jerusalem), so we had even worse periods in the past,” resident Avinoam Avganim said on usually busy Jaffa Road, the scene of several of the dozens of Palestinian suicide bombings that rocked the city during the 2000-2005 uprising.
At a late-night meeting of his security cabinet that finished in the early hours of Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also allowed revocation of residency rights of Palestinians deemed to have committed “terrorism” and a step-up in the demolition of homes of people who carry out attacks.
The cabinet also approved an expansion of the national police, extra guards on public transport and the deployment of army units in “sensitive areas” along the steel and concrete barrier that separates the West Bank.
Police said 300 soldiers had been placed under their command and they had begun deploying as part of the new security measures.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he would travel to the region to try and ease tensions “and see if we can’t move that away from this precipice,” Kerry said.
(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis; Editing by Andrew Heavens)