Israel buries soldiers killed in truck-ramming attack

Shatha Yaish and Delphine Matthieussent
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An Israeli forensics expert gathers evidence at the site of the attack in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2017

An Israeli forensics expert gathers evidence at the site of the attack in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2017 (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

Jerusalem (AFP) - Hundreds of Israelis attended funerals Monday for four soldiers killed when a Palestinian rammed a truck into troops visiting a popular tourist site in a stark reminder of tensions despite a recent lull in violence.

Sunday's attack, which also saw the driver shot dead, came after months of relative calm and led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to spark debate by suggesting it was inspired by the Islamic State group.

Police arrested nine people and removed a memorial tent set up in the Palestinian's east Jerusalem neighbourhood, located near the site of the incident.

Five of the nine arrested were relatives of the attacker, 28-year-old Fadi al-Qunbar, police said.

His cousin said he was religious like other members of the family, but dismissed Netanyahu's statement that Qunbar was an IS supporter.

"There was nothing in his life saying he was ISIS," Mohammad al-Qunbar, 43, said as he sat near what was left of the tent in the Jabal Mukaber neighbourhood.

"He never contacted ISIS and he doesn't know ISIS," he said, using an alternative acronym for the jihadist group.

He added: "We were shocked, for sure. We never expected anything like this from Fadi. But what happened has happened and we only say there is no might and power but that of God."

Israeli ministers decided Sunday to take a series of actions, including demolishing Qunbar's home and withholding his body, local media reported.

They also decided to hold without charge under a policy known as administrative detention those who publicly support IS, according to an Israeli official.

- 'Supported' IS? -

Netanyahu's assertion that Qunbar "according to all indications supported" IS, without providing details of what led to the conclusion, sparked debate Monday.

In making the statement, Netanyahu argued, as he has repeatedly in the past, that Israel faces the same "terrorist" attacks that have hit countries such as Germany and France.

However, the incident in many ways fit the pattern of a wave of Palestinian lone-wolf assaults that began in October 2015, though seemingly with the intent to cause more casualties than usual.

A heavier truck was used -- a flat-bed model with a crane in the rear -- and an entire group of soldiers were targeted.

Israeli security officials have said that IS influence among Palestinians is limited.

A poll released in December found that only five percent of Palestinians believe that IS represents true Islam.

Sunday's attack occurred after hundreds of soldiers arrived at the site as part of a tour on the history of Jerusalem.

The location overlooks holy sites such as the Dome of the Rock and provides one of the most spectacular views of the city.

A video shared online showed a truck drive through a group of soldiers standing next to a bus.

The driver then pulls off to the side and tries to reverse back towards where the soldiers were hit before the truck eventually comes to a stop.

Visitors, including soldiers, are seen running for cover. Soldiers opened fire, as well as at least one civilian.

It was not clear whether the attack was planned or spontaneous.

The military identified the victims as three women -- Yael Yekutiel, 20; Shir Hajaj, 22; and Shira Zur, 20 -- and one man, Erez Orbach, 20.

- 'Candle for you' -

Later at the scene, soldiers could be seen distraught over the incident as rescue workers provided psychological support.

Israeli media published the last message Hajaj's mother sent to her by phone.

"My dear, my life, talk to me, please," it said.

Around 1,000 people, including fellow soldiers, attended Hajaj's funeral Monday at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. Her casket was draped in an Israeli flag.

Family members cried out in grief when her coffin was lowered into the ground.

"You think that you will be on the front page of the papers for a prize or an invention," one of her sisters said.

"But instead in the papers today there was a memorial candle for you."

A wave of Palestinian knife, gun and car-ramming attacks erupted in October 2015, but the violence had greatly subsided in recent months.

The last time an Israeli was killed in an attack was October 9, 2016.

Since October 2015, 247 Palestinians, 40 Israelis, two Americans, a Jordanian, an Eritrean and a Sudanese have been killed, according to an AFP count.

Most of the Palestinians killed were carrying out attacks, according to Israeli authorities. Others were shot dead during protests or clashes, while some died in Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip.

Many analysts say Palestinian frustration with the Israeli occupation and settlement building in the West Bank, comatose peace efforts and their own fractured leadership have helped feed the unrest.

Israel says incitement by Palestinian leaders and media is a leading cause.