A Palestinian gunman killed two Israelis and injured five in central Jerusalem on Sunday morning before being shot dead, stoking fears about the possibility of a new wave of violence timed to the Jewish high holidays.
The holiday period is tense because it draws increased numbers of Israeli religious pilgrims to visit the holy plaza in Jerusalem where the ancient Jewish Temple once stood. The plaza is also home to Al Aqsa mosque, the third most important site in Islam.
The shootout began when the attacker fired an M-16 as he drove past a light-rail station along the old border between East and West Jerusalem, killing 60-year-old Levana Malihi, authorities said. She was a retired employee of the Israeli parliament, its website said.
The gunman continued driving, firing on vehicles passing Israel’s national police headquarters. As the gunman headed toward the nearby Arab neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah, he opened fire on police officers who were pursuing him, killing a 29-year-old sergeant, Yosef Kirma.
The attack ended a few minutes later, when Israeli police sprayed the shooter’s car with bullets.
He used an Israeli army rifle, police said. They offered no explanation for how he obtained it.
Hamas leaders in the West Bank issued a statement identifying the gunman as Misbah Abu Sbeih and describing him as an activist in the Islamic militant group. But Hamas stopped short of taking responsibility for the attack.
Abu Sbeih was 39 and lived in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, police said.
Government-run Channel 1 news reported that the gunman had a record of convictions for violent crime and was supposed to begin serving a four-month sentence Sunday for attacking a policeman three years ago.
In images on his Facebook page, Abu Sbeih wears a Hamas headband and stands next to a Hamas banner.
His final post, from early Friday morning, was a goodbye message to Al Aqsa mosque. “I won’t miss anything as much as I am going to miss you,’’ it said.
Commenters on the page indicated that he belonged to a group of Palestinian activists who routinely visited the mosque as a show of resistance against calls for the Israeli government to assert more control over the holy plaza.
Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told reporters that social posts by Palestinian activists have encouraged violence and said Facebook was too permissive in what it allowed to be published.
“It brings people into the streets to carry out murders and terrorism,’’ he said.
With the holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur this month, Israel has been on edge about the possibility of a renewed wave of attacks by Palestinians acting on their own.
So-called lone wolves were responsible for a spate of stabbings, shootings and car rammings during the same time during the previous two years. Light-rail stations just north of Jerusalem’s Old City were a frequent target.
The attacks a year ago killed several dozen Israelis and led to the deaths of more than 200 Palestinians by Israeli security forces that identified most as assailants.
Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, criticized Hamas for “glorifying” Sunday’s attack, which the group’s Al Quds television channel had called a “natural response to the crimes of occupation.”
The U.S. State Department released a statement condemning “in the strongest possible terms the terrorist attack that took place today in Jerusalem.”
Special correspondent Mitnick reported from Tel Aviv. Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf contributed to this report from Gaza.
4:50 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting.
This article was originally published at 5:45 a.m.