As Israeli police were preparing a security cordon around the King David Hotel for the Tuesday night arrival of Senator Barack Obama, shots rang out a short distance away Israeli civilians and police shot dead an Arab bulldozer driver who'd gone on a rampage overturning vehicles and wounding 11 people.
Israeli police saw no link between the bulldozer attack the second in the Holy City this month and the visit of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Nor was Obama under any threat: His plane had not yet landed in Israel when the Arab construction worker gunned his machine out onto a main tourist thoroughfare in Jerusalem and slammed into five cars and a bus.
One eyewitness told Israeli media that the driver tried to slam the bulldozer's blade onto a pedestrian, but "missed her by an inch". He added: "At first I thought it was an accident, but then he kept going in a zig-zag down the slope of King David, overturned a car and hit a few cars. The whole thing happened very quickly." The driver, identified as Rassan Abu Tir, 22, was shot and wounded by an armed civilian, but kept on driving until he was killed by shots from a Border Police officer. His bulldozer careened to a halt within sight of the King David hotel.
Police suspect that Abu Tir was carrying out a copycat attack, similar to one on July 2 in which an Arab worker, apparently after a salary dispute with his boss, turned his bulldozer into a lethal weapon, killing three people on a main street in Jerusalem before he was shot dead. The July 2 attacker appears to have acted alone, with no ties to any Palestinian militant group. Although Tuesday's attacker, Abu Tir, was part of the extended family of a jailed Hamas member of the Palestinian legislature, no militant group has claimed responsibility for his attack.
Israeli security sources say that Obama will be accorded "near presidential" security during his two-day visit to Israel, with a brief foray into the Palestinian territories to meet President Mahmoud Abbas. On his swing through Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, Obama aimed to show voters that despite his limited experience in foreign affairs, he is a quick study.
Israel will be another test of his skills polls show that Israelis are far warier of Obama than of Republican hopeful Senator John McCain, and as one Israeli official put it, "Obama's here to show that there's no reason for us to be scared of him." The junior Senator from Illinois visited Israel as part of a congressional delegation in 2006, and the Israeli foreign minister at the time, Silvan Shalom, says he remembers Obama as someone who "asked questions and took a lot of notes".
While in Jerusalem, Obama will meet with top Israeli political and government leaders, and he will fly by helicopter to Sderot, the southern Israel town frequently bombarded by rockets fired from Gaza. Sderot is now deemed safe for Obama, with rocket fire having been sharply reduced by Hamas which now controls Gaza observing a truce with Israel.
After his Sderot trip, Obama is expected to don a yarmulke in Jerusalem on Wednesday night and visit the Western Wall, Judaism's most holy site. Many Jews believe that a prayer written on a scrap of paper and placed in the cracks of the ancient wall will be answered, and Obama is unlikely to resist the opportunity to solicit a celestial bump for his election campaign. This may lead to a predicament for the Almighty, since Senator McCain, made a similar pilgrimage to the Western Wall several months ago. The candidates may not win divine intercession, but both are hoping that the trip to Jerusalem will help them gather Jewish and Evangelical Christian votes back in the U.S.
With reporting by Aaron. J.Klein/Jerusalem