Netanyahu vows 'strong, swift' response after child, 13, opens fire in new Jerusalem terror shooting

Jerusalem's Old City - Reuters
Jerusalem's Old City - Reuters

A 13-year-old Palestinian gunman opened fire in east Jerusalem on Saturday, a day after the deadliest attacks on Israeli civilians in a decade, raising fears of an escalation of the long-running conflict.

The shooting came a day after a Palestinian killed seven Israelis on Friday night and two days after a deadly raid by the Israeli military on Jenin refugee camp.

Speaking ahead of a meeting of his Security Cabinet late on Saturday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised a "strong, swift and precise" response.

"We're not seeking an escalation but are prepared for any scenario."

Mr Netanyahu later announced a series of punitive steps against the Palestinians, including plans to strengthen Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, following the Security Cabinet meeting.

Mr Netanyahu's office said the Security Cabinet had agreed to seal off an attacker's home immediately ahead of its punitive demolition. It also plans to cancel social security benefits for the families of attackers, make it easier for Israelis to get gun licences and step up efforts to collect illegal weapons.

The announcement also said that in response to public Palestinian celebrations over the Friday attack, Israel would take new steps to "strengthen the settlements" this week. It gave no further details.

Before the meeting, Mr Netanyahu laid out his response to the attacks. "We are deploying forces. We are reinforcing units and we are doing this in various sectors. We will seal and demolish terrorists' homes in expedited processes in order to exact an additional price from those who support terrorism. This process already began yesterday and is continuing," he said.

"This evening, I will submit to the Security Cabinet additional steps in the fight against terrorism. This includes significantly hastening and expediting the licensing of weapons for authorised civilians. As we have seen time and again, this saves lives."

"I will also submit to the Security Cabinet the revocation of national insurance rights from families that support terrorism."

Saturday’s shooting in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan badly wounded a father, 47, and his 23-year-old son, Israel's ambulance service said. Security footage showed the victims to be observant Jews, wearing skullcaps and tzitzit, or knotted ritual tassels.

Before law enforcement arrived, two passersby carrying licensed weapons shot and overpowered the 13-year-old gunman, police said.

A police spokesman described it as a "terrorist attack" and said the assailant "was neutralised".

The escalating violence – on the eve of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's arrival in the region – has raised fears of another spiralling conflict.

Palestinians - Ahmad Hasaballah/IMAGESLIVE via ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock
Palestinians - Ahmad Hasaballah/IMAGESLIVE via ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock
Israeli security personnel - RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS
Israeli security personnel - RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

After visiting the scene of Friday’s attack near a synagogue on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu called for “determination and composure”, while calling on people “not to take the law into their own hands.”

Regional players are watching the situation with concern, with Saudi Arabia warning of the need to limit escalation.

"The kingdom condemns targeting civilians, stressing the necessity of stopping the escalation, reviving the peace process and ending the occupation," the foreign ministry said.

Israel's military said it was boosting its presence in the West Bank.

"Following an IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] situational assessment, it was decided to reinforce the Judea and Samaria [West Bank] Division with an additional battalion," the military said.

Four victims of Friday’s attack have been publicly identified: married couple Eli and Natali Mizrahi, aged 48 and 45 respectively, Rafael Ben-Eliyahu, 56, and Asher Natan, 14.

Eli's father, Shimon, said they were eating dinner when they heard gunfire and went to help. The couple were killed at point blank range, he said in comments published by The Times of Israel.

Relatives of Eli and Natali Mizrahi mourn - Amir Levy/Getty Images
Relatives of Eli and Natali Mizrahi mourn - Amir Levy/Getty Images

“We were in the middle of our meal, and there were several shots and my son jumped up. We yelled at him, ‘Don’t go anywhere,” Shimon said.

“It seems that he was speaking with the terrorist, who pulled out a gun and killed him. [Eli] and his wife were murdered,” Shimon said. "[The terrorist] was standing next to his car and he shot them. He got into the car and fled.”

At least three other people were wounded, including a 15-year-old boy and a 60-year-old woman who remained in Hadassah's Mount Scopus Hospital in a moderate condition. A 24-year-old remained sedated on a ventilator.

The attack caused immediate outrage for targeting worshipers leaving sabbath prayers and came amid soaring tensions over Thursday's Israeli raid on Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants in the Jenin refugee camp, which left nine dead including an elderly woman.

Israel police killed the gunman following a brief chase after the shooting. He was identified as Khairi Alqam, a 21-year-old resident of east Jerusalem, the sector of the city annexed by Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War.

There has been no indication that he had prior involvement in militant activity or was a member of an established Palestinian armed group.

Alqam was named after his grandfather, who was stabbed to death by an Israeli Jew in 1988, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported. His family members said he carried out the synagogue shooting as revenge for the killing of a distant relative – 17-year-old Mohammad Ali from Shoafat refugee camp – who was shot dead by Israeli forces on Wednesday while carrying a replica firearm.

His father Moussa Alqam said he did not know whether his son had acted out of revenge nor what might have motivated him, adding that his son was an ordinary person with no militant ties.

"He is neither the first nor the last young man to get martyred and what he did is a source of pride," he said.

In a statement, police said they had arrested "42 people for questioning" overnight, "some of them members of the terrorist's family".

Police said others detained included residents of the gunman's neighbourhood, where footage showed Palestinians dancing and cheering in celebration of the shooting on Saturday. Palestinian detainees who celebrated in prison after Friday's attack were placed in solitary confinement, the Israeli prison service said.

Palestinians - MOHAMMED SABER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Palestinians - MOHAMMED SABER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In a separate statement, police said the force had been placed on the "highest level" of alert following the attack in Neve Yaakov neighbourhood of east Jerusalem.

Kobi Shabtai, Israel's police chief, called the shooting "one of the worst attacks [Israel] has encountered in recent years."

He announced he had permanently deployed two teams of Yamam special operatives – the equivalent of SWAT –  in the city and beefed up forces, instructing police to work 12-hour shifts. He urged the public to call a hotline if they see anything suspicious.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy expressed his condolences on Saturday and said a Ukrainian citizen was among the dead.

"We share Israel's pain after the terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. Among the victims is a Ukrainian woman. Sincere condolences to the victims' families," he wrote on Twitter.

"The crimes were cynically committed on the Intl Holocaust Remembrance Day. Terror must have no place in today's world. Neither in Israel nor in Ukraine."

Hizbollah, the Lebanese militant group, issued a statement praising Friday's attack while a spokesman for the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas hailed it as "a response to the crime conducted by the occupation in Jenin and a natural response to the occupation's criminal actions".