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Monday, June 26, 2017

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A Palestinian rammed his truck into a group of Israeli soldiers on a popular promenade in Jerusalem on Sunday, killing four people and injuring about 15 others in a deliberate attack, police and emergency services said.

Police identified the driver as a Palestinian from Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem and said he was shot dead. A dozen bullet holes pockmarked the windscreen.

It was the deadliest Palestinian attack in Jerusalem in months and targeted officer cadets who were disembarking from a bus that brought them to the Armon Hanatziv promenade, a stone-laden and grass-lined walkway with a panoramic view of the walled Old City.

“It is a terrorist attack, a ramming attack,” a police spokeswoman said.

Police said the dead, three women and one man, were all in their twenties, without identifying them further. Soldiers’ deaths are announced in Israel only after families are notified.

Roni Alsheich, the national police chief, told reporters he could not rule out that the Palestinian was motivated by a truck ramming attack in a Berlin Christmas market that killed 12 people last month.

“It is certainly possible to be influenced by watching TV but it is difficult to get into the head of every individual to determine what prompted him, but there is no doubt that these things do have an effect,” Alsheich told reporters.

A wave of Palestinian street attacks, including vehicle rammings, has largely slowed but not stopped completely since it began in October 2015.

Security camera footage showed the truck racing towards the soldiers, and then after a gap that apparently included scenes of carnage, reversing into them.

“In a split second I looked to my left and saw what I can only describe as a speeding truck which sent me flying,” a security guard, who was identified only as “A” told Channel 10.

“It was a miracle that my pistol stayed on me. I shot at a tire but realized there was no point as he has many wheels, so I ran in front of the cabin and at an angle I shot at him and emptied my magazine. When I finished shooting, some of the officer cadets also took aim and also started firing.”

The footage showed many of the soldiers fleeing the scene as the attack took place, their rifles slung on their shoulders. Questions were already being raised in the Israeli media why more did not engage the attacker.

Rescue workers said about 15 wounded people were strewn on the street at the promenade as ambulances raced to the scene. The Israeli military regularly takes soldiers on educational tours of Jerusalem, including the Armon Hanatziv vantage point.

Channel 10 television said the soldiers’ tour guide also fired at the assailant.

As a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, which Israel considers part of its capital but the world does not, the truck driver would carry an Israeli identity card and be able to move freely through all of the city.

Palestinian street assaults over the past 15 months have killed at least 37 Israelis and two visiting Americans.

At least 231 Palestinians have been killed in violence in Israel, the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip during that period. Israel says at least 157 of them were assailants in lone attacks often targeting security forces and using rudimentary weapons including kitchen knives. Others died during clashes and protests.

Israel says one of the main causes of the violence has been incitement by the Palestinian leadership, with young men encouraged to attack Israeli soldiers and civilians.

The Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, denies that allegation, and says assailants have acted out of frustration over Israeli occupation of land Palestinians seek for a state in peace talks stalled since 2014.

Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in Gaza praised Sunday’s attack.

“We bless this heroic operation resisting the Israeli occupation to force it to stop its crimes and violations against our people,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told Reuters.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Maayan Lubell, Ori Lewis and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Stephen Powell)

IMAGE: Israeli soldiers work at the scene where police said a Palestinian rammed his truck into a group of Israeli soldiers on a popular promenade in Jerusalem January 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun