Earlier this week, Misbah Abu Sbeih, 39, a father of five children, got into his car in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem and carried out a drive-by shooting near an Israeli police station. He killed an Israeli woman and a special forces officer from the “Yassam” unit, in charge of quelling unrest mainly in the Palestinian half of the city.
Israeli police showered Abu Sbeih’s car with bullets – witnesses say about 50 – killing him. “We lost one of Jerusalem’s brothers, a big brother. It is a big loss to all of us,” Abu Sbeih’s sibling, Tayseer, told Al Jazeera on Monday, his voice trembling.
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That morning, Abu Sbeih was expected to hand himself over to the occupation police. He was meant to serve four months in prison for allegedly attempting to hit an Israeli soldier in 2013; an accusation his family denies.
Instead of giving in, his family says he chose to fight back.
“This kind of pressure breeds explosions. Misbah reached a breaking point,” said Tayseer. “The occupation isn’t a normal or natural environment – they should blame themselves for what he did.”
Shortly after Abu Sbeih carried out the attack, his daughter, 17-year-old Eiman, was arrested by Israeli forces.
Abu Sbeih had reportedly been banned by the Israeli court in Jerusalem from travelling abroad, entering the Old City and the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam’s third holiest site. “He would always call on Palestinians to protect al-Aqsa from Israeli incursions, and the Israelis didn’t like that,” Tayseer continued.
At the end of the day, we wish that he was still around us, but he gave us a reason to raise our heads high.
For the majority of Palestinians, the complex, which also contains the Dome of the Rock, retains not only religious, but also nationalist significance. The site is also the holiest in Judaism and is believed by Jews to be the place where a historic Jewish temple once stood, though Jews are forbidden under Rabbinic tradition from praying there.
Yet, Jewish Israeli settlers, escorted and protected by Israeli police and soldiers, often enter the complex, while many Muslim Palestinians are prevented from entering, stirring fears that Israel is attempting to undermine Palestinian access to the complex.
Abu Sbeih had been arrested almost systematically by Israeli forces for his activism, his family and friends say. He was detained four times in the same week before carrying out the attack for going to the Old City and attempting to pray at the gates of the compound.
Israeli police told Al Jazeera that they could not confirm or deny his arrests as “there is a gag order” on the information.
“They even arrested him twice in the same day,” Abu Sbeih’s 19-year-old son told Al Jazeera, adding that they would keep him at the police station for between four to 24 hours at a time. “They are to blame for this.”
In 2015, Abu Sbeih was imprisoned for 11 months for what Israel alleged was “incitement on Facebook” – a claim that has been used in the past by Israel to quell Palestinian activism against the Israeli occupation.
The arrests and the bans on his entry to the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Old City, were what pushed him over the edge, his family believes. “It’s like taking a fish out of the water,” his son said.
They say he was known as “the lion of al-Aqsa”. His long-time friend, Amjad, described the mosque to Abu Sbeih as a “red line”. “It was an article of faith to him. He was very protective of al-Aqsa and he would cry when Israel barred him from entering it. There was no way he would give it up.”
“We used to warn him to be careful because we were worried he would get arrested. He would say, ‘if we retreat, what example are we setting for the younger generations?… we will look weak in front of everyone’,” said Amjad.
Abu Sbeih is the 232nd Palestinian to be killed by Israel in a year of bloodshed, dubbed by Palestinians as Intifada or the popular uprising of Jerusalem. His death comes as Palestinians mark one year since the Intifada broke out in October 2015.
Muhannad al-Azzeh, a lawyer with the Addameer human rights association in Jerusalem, says Israel severely tightened the noose around the city when the backlash began last October, breeding even more violence.
Since last year, 8,000 Palestinians have been arrested across the occupied territories. Of them, 2,355 are in Jerusalem, according to al-Azzeh, who added that the number of those arrested in Jerusalem had always been double that of any city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“This is not to mention the court decisions issued to ban people from certain areas in the Old City and around Jerusalem. Some people even got maps handed to them by the Israeli authorities detailing where they’re not allowed to go in the city.”
Meanwhile, for Abu Sbeih’s family and friends, they will remember him as someone who fought for their homeland.
“Yes, at the end of the day, we wish that he was still around us, but he gave us a reason to raise our heads high,” his son said.