Just hours before US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was due to arrive in Jerusalem, a Palestinian went on a bulldozer rampage in downtown Jerusalem – just down the road from the legendary King David Hotel, where Senator Obama is to stay.
The attack, which injured 24, marks the second time this month that such an attack took place on a main thoroughfare in primarily Jewish West Jerusalem, and the second time this month in which the attacker, who was shot and killed, was from Arab East Jerusalem, raising tensions in the city.
Yerah Tucker, an emergency service worker who went to the scene, said Israelis were concerned this was becoming a new pattern of attacks. "Now, everyone who sees a bulldozer in Jerusalem has reason to be scared."
Tuesday's attack appears to mark the third time this year that Palestinians inside Jerusalem have been involved in attacks on Israelis. Palestinians as a population make up close to a third of Jerusalem, and most are permanent residents who hold "blue ID cards" issued by the Israeli government, giving them the right to work or travel anywhere in Israel and receive benefits similar to those of Israeli citizens.
On July 2, a Palestinian from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher killed three people and wounded 30 others when he rammed a bulldozer into a bus and cars on a busy Jerusalem street before being shot dead. In March, a Palestinian from another area of East Jerusalem, Jebel Mukaber, gunned down eight seminary students in the town center. Police prohibited the publishing of details on Tuesday's attacker, but earlier in the day, news wires had identified him as a 22-year-old from Umm Tuba, also in the Jerusalem area.
The location of the attackers has underscored the complications of the Israeli-Palestininan conflict and the city at the heart of it: Jerusalem. Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967 and officially annexed it, as well as many of the surrounding villages. The status of the city is supposed to be worked out in peace talks, but in the nearly 15 years since Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo Accords, no agreements on Jerusalem have been reached.
Obama said in a recent policy speech in Washington that Jerusalem should remain united and undivided, sparking controversy. Last week he issued a clarification in which he said that the status of Jerusalem will need to be negotiated in future peace talks.
After the attack Tuesday, security was further heightened for police and security forces already on high alert ahead of Obama's visit, which is expected to include meetings with high-profile Israeli and Palestinian officials and to clarify the senator's viewpoint on the conflict.
Israeli police called the incident a "terror attack," but could not say if it was timed for Obama's trip.
At the scene, Nathaniel Sterman, a high school student, sat behind the police lines under the shade of a tree, trying to catch his breath. "We heard big bashes, and then we saw him pick up cars and flip them," he said. Yochanan Levin, also a witness, said he saw the driver trying to overturn a large bus. "I guess he figured that was the way to get the most people," he said.