JERUSALEM – Jerusalem's mayor, caught on video this week with a gun slung over his shoulder while visiting a Palestinian neighborhood, is making no apologies for the display of force. He says he's helping keep his city safe.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Nir Barkat urged other licensed gun owners to follow his lead, saying that Israel's plethora of well-trained army veterans gives the country an added edge as it confronts a wave of attacks carried out by lone Palestinians.
"In Israel we're fortunate to have many ex-military and current military reservists that are professionals, well trained, they know how to fight. They know how to use weapons," said Barkat, himself a former Israeli paratrooper commander. "For us, it's an extra security measure that's not happening in the rest of the world."
Barkat described Israel as caught in the midst of an unprecedented battle, with his city at the heart of the unrest.
The violence erupted last month during the Jewish new year with clashes at Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site, a hilltop compound revered by Muslim and Jews.
The clashes have spread to the West Bank, and in recent days, Palestinian assailants have carried out a series of stabbings in Jerusalem and across Israel. At least seven Palestinians have been killed, and scores wounded, while four Israelis have been killed and more than a dozen Israelis wounded.
The unrest in Jerusalem has been fueled by Palestinian allegations that Israel is plotting to change a sensitive arrangement at the holy site, revered by Jews as the spot where the biblical Temples were built and by Muslims as the place where the Prophet Muhammed is believed to have ascended to heaven. The compound contains the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.
Under a longstanding arrangement, non-Muslims are allowed to visit, but not pray, during specific hours. In recent months, the site has experienced growing numbers of visits, including by Jewish nationalists who seek a greater presence at the compound, fueling Palestinian fears and rumors.
Barkat accused Palestinian and Muslim leaders of spreading "incitement and lies," and like other Israeli leaders, said Israel has no plan to change the delicate status quo.
He said Israel must do its best to "tell the truth" to calm the tensions, but in the meantime, must do its utmost to stop attacks on its city streets. While the city's rate of violent crime remains low by global standards, the atmosphere is tense, and on Thursday, the Old City was teeming with police patrolling its narrow alleys.
Barkat said Israel's well-armed citizenry plays a key role in this strategy, stopping attackers quickly in cases when police aren't around. He pointed to stabbings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv this week where attackers were quickly shot.
Barkat said he gave no thought to taking his handgun with him when he toured an area in east Jerusalem this week where violent clashes had taken place and dismissed suggestions that images of a gun-toting mayor might unnerve citizens or tourists. He said this week was not the first time he has gone out with his weapon and earlier this year, he and his bodyguard, unarmed, subdued a Palestinian attacker.
"This is something Israelis understand, appreciate and feel secure," he said. "In America and in Europe, if you see civilians carry guns you get scared. In Israel, it's exactly the opposite."
Barkat became animated as he discussed his weapon of choice, a Glock 40 handgun, modified with an Israeli-developed "Roni" carbine kit that allows it to be fired like a rifle. "It's extremely stable and responsible," he said.
But the grainy images of the mayor that appeared on TV, standing watch and getting into his SUV with the gun slung over his shoulder, have not gone over well with everyone, particularly in the Palestinian population that makes up one-third of the city.
Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli rights group B'Tselem said there is a risk that Palestinian suspects will simply be shot, even in cases where they could be arrested. A video that surfaced last week, for instance, showed Israeli police gunning down a Palestinian assailant from a distance. Perhaps he could have been stopped and arrested, she said.
"Obviously the police have an obligation to protect the public and stop attacks," Michaeli said. "However, stopping them doesn't automatically mean killing. It means using the minimum amount of force necessary to neutralize them."
Israel captured east Jerusalem, home to virtually all of the city's Palestinians, in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed the area. But the annexation is not internationally recognized, and few Palestinians have accepted citizenship or are permitted to own guns.
Adnan Husseini, the top Palestinian official for Jerusalem, said Barkat's decision to display his weapon was "a declaration of war" on residents of the area.
"It's incitement for other Israelis to do the same," he said. "He claims that the city is united, but then, in the presence of thousands of members of the police in the streets, he did not feel safe. This is a clear sign of the failure of this occupation of the city."
Barkat rejected such criticism, saying he is the mayor for all of the city's residents.
"If somebody is concerned about people carrying guns, then don't be violent and you have nothing to be concerned about because we're here to make sure the city is safe and secure," he said.