Clashes rock East Jerusalem, gloom peace prospect

08:20, March 17, 2010      

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Clashes erupted between Israeli police and Arab protesters on Tuesday in a disputed section of Jerusalem, further heightening tensions that have already threatened to stifle the budding U.S. peace-making efforts.

During the violence that started early in the morning, hundreds of Arab youths threw stones at Israeli police forces and set tires and garbage bins on fire at several locations in East Jerusalem, the predominantly Arab section of the holy city the Palestinian claim to be the capital of their future state, and the latter responded with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.

As of noon, some 50 protesters were injured and over 30 arrested, and several Israeli police officers were also wounded, according to rough counts by local media. Israeli authorities have also reportedly beefed up security measures around Arab cities in northern Israel and blocked two busloads of local Arabs from heading for Jerusalem, in a bid to forestall an escalation in the flashpoint city.

Meanwhile, a general closure the Israeli army has imposed upon the West Bank since Friday is still in force, and angry Palestinians on Tuesday continued to clash with Israeli security forces at checkpoints linking Israel and the Palestinian territories, resulting in a number of injuries.

The fighting came in the wake of weeks of simmering tensions since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month included two holy sites in the West Bank into an Israeli heritage list, triggering Palestinian accusations that the Jewish state was attempting to tighten its grip on Palestinian territories and establish facts on the ground to stop the Palestinians from having a viable state.

Adding oil to the flame, the Israeli Interior Ministry last week greenlighted a project to build 1,600 new housing units at a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, one day after U.S. special envoy George Mitchell officially announced that Israel and the Palestinians had agreed to begin indirect talks under U.S. mediation. The dramatic move infuriated the already doubtful Palestinian leadership, who has vowed not to enter the U.S.- brokered parley until Israel cancels the project.

In the latest development that ignited the Palestinians' fury, Israel on Monday inaugurated a restored historic synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in East Jerusalem, not far from a controversial hilltop compound that boasts not only the holiest praying place for Jews, the Western Wall, at its western flank, but also the third holiest site in Islam, the al-Aqsa Mosque, inside its enclosure. The move gave rise to allegations that Jewish extremists are plotting to destroy the compound and build a Jewish temple at the location, which the Jews believe is the site of their two destroyed biblical temples.

In the face of what they called an Israeli attempt to "judaize" the holy city, Palestinian factions chorused a call for action to defend the al-Aqsa Mosque. In the Gaza Strip, thousands took to streets chanting slogans against Israel and honoring the revered mosque, as the Islamic Hamas rulers called for a "day of rage" against the Israeli moves. In the West Bank, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), dominated by the Fatah movement, warned that Israel is dragging the whole world into a religious war.

The face-off cast a fresh layer of shadow upon the Israeli- Palestinian peace process, which has already been overshadowed by the recent Israeli expansion plan in East Jerusalem. Despite U.S. pressure, the Netanyahu administration has so far signalled no intention to meet the Palestinian demand and rescind the project, which threw the two Mideast foes into a new deadlock just as the U. S. mediation efforts were about to bear fruits.

The East Jerusalem plan has also plunged the Israeli-U.S. ties into a visible crisis, with the Israeli ambassador in Washington talking of a 35-year low. Recent days have seen U.S. officials line up to condemn the expansion project, which they called an insult to the United States as it was announced while U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was in the region for peace-making efforts.

Against such a backdrop, Mitchell has postponed his visit to the region, which was originally scheduled for Tuesday. Local daily The Jerusalem Post quoted the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv as saying that the change was due to "logistical reasons" and that he would arrive sometime after a meeting of the Middle East Quartet of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia in Moscow on Thursday. Yet speculation is circulating that the emissary put off his trip because Washington was waiting for a formal Israeli response over the East Jerusalem housing plan.

Source: Xinhua
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