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JERUSALEM – Israel's foreign minister on Thursday berated right-wing politicians for exploiting tensions in Jerusalem, underscoring concerns that an increasingly violent dispute over a major holy site may be spinning out of control.
The comments by Avigdor Lieberman came a day after a Hamas militant slammed a minivan into a crowd waiting for a train in Jerusalem, killing one person and wounding 13, and a Palestinian motorist drove into a group of soldiers in the West Bank, injuring three.
The wife of the first attacker said he had been angered by a confrontation earlier in the day between police and Palestinians at the site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
Perennial tensions in the area have spiked in recent weeks as hard-line Israeli politicians have stepped up demands for the removal of restrictions preventing Jews from praying at the holy site. The clashes on Wednesday erupted as Palestinians threw stones and firecrackers in response to a demonstration by Israeli activists.
Last month, a Palestinian rammed his vehicle into a crowded train stop in east Jerusalem, killing a 3-month-old Israeli-American girl and a 22-year-old Ecuadorean woman. Days later, police shot and killed the suspected gunman behind a separate drive-by attack on Yehuda Glick, a rabbi and activist who has pushed for greater Jewish access to the sacred hilltop compound. Glick remains hospitalized.
In his comments Thursday, Lieberman said that Israeli politicians pushing for greater Jewish access to the site were behaving irresponsibly.
"I think these are people seeking cheap headlines in this very sensitive atmosphere, trying to cynically exploit a very complex situation," he told Israel Radio. Lieberman himself is a secular ultra-nationalist who in the past has made incendiary remarks about Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, but he has moderated his tone in recent months.
Right-wing Israelis have been pushing for lifting the restrictions on Jewish prayer at the site almost from the day they were first imposed by the government in the immediate wake of the 1967 Middle East war.
That conflict saw Israel seize east Jerusalem -- which includes the holy site -- as well as the West Bank and Gaza, territories where the Palestinians want to establish an independent state.
The durability of the restrictions reflect a longstanding Israeli desire not to inflame Muslim sensitivities and a formal rabbinical ban on praying in an area that tradition holds is the site of Judaism's ancient holy temples.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly come out in favor of maintaining the status quo at the site. Israeli security officials said earlier this week that changing that status quo could inflame an already tense situation.
Reacting to the comments from the security officials, Moshe Feiglin, a lawmaker from Netanyahu's Likud Party, said on Thursday that the struggle over the site was directly related to Israeli efforts to achieve overall security throughout the country.
"Any pullback from the Temple Mount will not end just at its gates," he said. "This society has to decide whether it is willing to pay the price to maintain its control, not only at the site, but in Israel as a whole."