JERUSALEM — The Israeli police shot dead an Arab man early Saturday in disputed circumstances in front of an entrance to the most prominent holy site in Jerusalem, in an episode that risked escalating tensions in the city at an already volatile time.
A police spokeswoman said that officers had stopped the man for questioning because he was inside the Aqsa Mosque compound, a site sacred to both Jews and Muslims, after it had formally closed. Seconds later, the spokeswoman said, the man seized and fired a police officer’s gun, leading them to kill him in self-defense. The police described the man as a terrorist.
In a conflicting account, the Palestinian news media reported that he had been killed during a scuffle after intervening to prevent the assault of an Arab woman. Neither version could be immediately corroborated. The police spokeswoman said that no woman had been present, and that it was not possible to provide video evidence, because there was no nearby surveillance camera and the officers did not have time to switch on their body cameras before the scuffle began.
The shooting occurred at the Chain Gate entrance to the compound, and the dead man was identified by the police as a 26-year-old from Hura, an Arab town in southern Israel.
His shooting risked setting off a new round of unrest at the site, which both Israelis and Palestinians consider an essential part of their national narratives. The site has been used as a mosque for more than a millennium but is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, because it was the location in antiquity of two ancient Jewish temples.
Clashes frequently occur there during moments of wider tensions in the region — particularly during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which started a week and a half ago.
Confrontations at the site in May 2021 contributed to the outbreak of an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist militia that controls the Gaza Strip.
For months, diplomats and officials have warned of the possibility of another flare-up at the compound during Passover and Ramadan, which this coming week will converge for only the second time in three decades. The overlapping festivals will attract more Jews and Muslims to the site than usual, raising the risk of confrontation — particularly if the police continue to allow Jewish activists to pray there, in contravention of a decades-old convention.
Israel captured the site from Jordan during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 and later annexed it. For years, the Israeli authorities prevented Jews from praying there, leery of angering Muslims. But in recent years the police have begun to tacitly allow it, heightening Palestinian resentment.
Jews consider it the holiest spot in Judaism, while Muslims believe it was the place from which the Prophet Muhammad rose to heaven.