JERUSALEM (AP) — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for calm during a surprise visit to Jerusalem on Tuesday ahead of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, in a high-profile gambit to bring an end to a monthlong wave of violence.
The visit comes amid unrest that erupted a month ago over tensions surrounding Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site sacred to Jews and Muslims. A spate of almost daily Palestinian attacks against civilians and soldiers, most of which have involved stabbings, has caused panic across Israel and raised fears that the region is on the cusp of a new round of bloodshed.
"These are difficult times for Israelis and Palestinians. I am here in the hope that we can work together to end the violence, ease the tensions and begin to restore a long term political horizon of peace," Ban said at a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Tuesday night.
"I deplore the random attacks against civilians, such terror attacks make every place unsafe and every person regardless to gender or age a potential victim," he said.
"We need to keep the situation from escalation into a religious conflict, with potential regional implications," he added.
Over the past month, 10 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks, most of them stabbings. In that time, 46 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, including 25 identified by Israel as attackers, and the rest in clashes with Israeli troops. An Eritrean migrant died after being shot by a security guard and beaten by a mob that mistakenly believed he was a Palestinian assailant during a deadly Arab attack at a bus station.
Netanyahu said Tuesday night that the violence has been caused largely by incitement from Palestinian leaders, including President Mahmoud Abbas.
"President Abbas unfortunately has been fanning the flames. President Abbas has not condemned a single one of the 30 terrorist attacks against Israelis over the last month and he continues to glorify the terrorists as heroes," Netanyahu said.
The initial outbreak of Palestinian attacks was fueled by rumors that Israel was plotting to take over Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site. Unrest began about a month ago, when Palestinians repeatedly barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, hurling stones, firebombs and fireworks at police.
The hilltop compound in Jerusalem's Old City is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, site of the two Jewish biblical Temples. It is the holiest site in Judaism.
Known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, it houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the gold-topped Dome of the Rock. It is the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Israel has adamantly denied the allegations, saying it has no plans to change the status quo at the site, where Jews are allowed to visit but not pray. Israel has accused Palestinian leaders of incitement to violence over the site.
But Jewish visits to the site have doubled since 2010 and senior members of Netanyahu's government have called for Jewish prayer rights, fueling Palestinian concerns about the site.
Netanyahu, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group, said "President Abbas has joined ISIS and Hamas in claiming that Israel threatens the Al-Aqsa Mosque. This Mr. Secretary is a total lie." He said Abbas must be held accountable for his "dangerous words."
He insisted that Israel is maintaining the status quo at the site. "Palestinians by contrast are the ones who violate the status quo. Palestinians have brought explosives into Al-Aqsa Mosque, that's a violation of the status quo, they try violently to prevent Jews and Christians from visiting the Temple Mount, that's another violation of the status quo."
Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said the "The U.N. Security Council should adopt a decision that would set the principles for establishing a state with east Jerusalem as its capital and providing international protection for the Palestinian people."
In New York, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is visiting to determine if Israeli and Palestinian leaders are willing to revive negotiations on a two-state solution.
He told reporters this is what Ban and the other members of the Quartet of Mideast mediators — the U.S., EU and Russia — have been encouraging.
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry said he will be meeting soon with Netanyahu and separately with Abbas as well as King Abdullah of Jordan.
"I think we have to have very careful expectations. I think we have to be very aware of the sensitivities that have built up now everywhere, and so we have to move carefully. And I think the United States has a special role to play. We accept that responsibility, I accept it, and I look forward to these meetings as an opportunity to try to pull people back from a precipice and try to move down a road, because everybody understands that in the end, it requires a political solution, it requires two states living side-by-side in peace with two peoples appropriately honored with their countries, and with security."
Ban's visit came amid another day of violence.
On Tuesday night, Israel's military said two Palestinians were shot and killed after they attacked soldiers in the biblical West Bank city of Hebron.
Just hours earlier, Israel's military said its forces killed a Palestinian during a clash along the border with the Gaza Strip. A military statement said the soldiers identified Palestinians preparing to attack soldiers on the Gaza border and "foiled the attack, firing toward the snipers, hits were confirmed."
It said the attackers are from the same cell that has fired on forces near the border before. Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said three Palestinians were injured as well.
A short while before that, a Palestinian attacker rammed his car into a group of Israelis waiting at a bus stop at a junction on the outskirts of Jerusalem in the West Bank, the Israeli military said. He then attempted to stab bystanders. A civilian and a soldier were injured in the attack before the attacker was shot and killed, it said.
That attack came soon after a 24-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli forces after he stabbed an Israeli military officer and lightly wounded him, the Israeli military and Palestinian health officials said. The military said it happened during a violent Palestinian protest.
In a separate incident in the West Bank, an Israeli man was killed after being run over during a clash with Palestinians. The man exited his car after Palestinian demonstrators threw stones at it and he began to hit passing Palestinian cars with a large stick, according to an Associated Press photographer who witnessed the incident. The man hit a passing truck with the stick, and the truck ran the man over. The Israeli military confirmed his death.
The truck driver turned himself in, saying he hit the Israeli by accident while trying to swerve out of the way, according to a Palestinian security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Israel has struggled to contain the attacks. Authorities have blocked roads and placed checkpoints at the entrances of Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. Other security measures include ID checks and requiring some Palestinian residents to lift their shirts and roll up pant legs as they exit their neighborhoods to prove they are not carrying knives. Soldiers have been deployed in Jerusalem and cities across Israel.
Also Tuesday, the Israeli military arrested top Hamas official Hassan Yousef in the West Bank, saying he had been "actively instigating and inciting terrorism" by encouraging attacks against Israelis.
"Hamas' leaders cannot expect to propagate violence and terror from the comfort of their living rooms and pulpits of their mosques," said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman.
Yousef is a co-founder of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules the Gaza Strip. His son, Mosab, spied for Israel between 1997 and 2007 and wrote a book about his experiences.
The Israeli military also demolished the home of a Palestinian who killed an Israeli woman last year. Maher Hashlamoun rammed his car into 25-year-old Dalia Lemkus in the West Bank last year and stabbed her several times before being shot and killed.
His wife told Palestinian radio that soldiers evacuated their three-story building in Hebron and demolished the third floor apartment where her family lived.
Lerner said the demolition "sends a clear message that there is a personal price to pay when you are involved in terror."
Meanwhile Tuesday, a group of nationalistic Israelis began fencing in a building they had taken over in the mostly Arab neighborhood of Silwan a day earlier, with the help of a large police escort.
Silwan is perched on a steep hill near Jerusalem's walled Old City, home to major Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites. It is part of east Jerusalem, captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians as a future capital.
Associated Press writers Nasser Shiyoukhi in Hebron, West Bank and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Mathew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.