JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israeli forces sealed off the West Bank and massed riot squads around Jerusalem’s Old City and Arab neighbourhoods during Muslim weekly prayers on Friday, facing down Palestinian anger over Jewish settlement expansion.
After a week in which visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden condemned Israel for approving new building just as Washington was pushing its key Middle East ally to relaunch peace talks with the Palestinians, police said a plan to avert a repeat of clashes in which dozens were wounded last Friday had worked.
Four Palestinians were detained on suspicion of throwing stones and two officers were slightly injured in Jerusalem, a police spokesman said. Reuters journalists saw one protester treated by medics.
Israel barred Palestinians from crossing from the West Bank into Israel and Jerusalem, and barred men under 50 from al-Aqsa mosque, the flashpoint holy site in the walled Old City.
As hundreds of youths streamed away from noon prayers at a mosque in the district of Ras al-Amud, a Reuters journalist saw men hurl stones at a car carrying Orthodox Jewish children. One rock smashed a side window, but there were no obvious injuries.
Islamists in the blockaded Gaza Strip rallied supporters to protest at Israel’s policies in Jerusalem: “We will redeem al-Aqsa mosque with our souls and our blood,” the crowd chanted.
As demonstrators burned U.S. and Israeli flags, Khalil al-Hayya, a leader of the Hamas movement which rules Gaza, urged Hamas’s rival, West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to reverse his decision to engage in “proximity talks” with Israel through U.S. mediators after a hiatus of 15 months. “These direct and indirect negotiations provide a cover to the Zionist aggression against our people and our lands,” Hayya told the crowd. “Our angry people now are calling on the Palestinian negotiator to back off from these negotiations which encourage more settlements and the Judaisation of Jerusalem.”
Before he left Israel on Thursday, Biden made clear he did not want Abbas to hold back from talks. These have been cast in doubt by calls from Palestinian officials and the Arab League for Israel to reverse its latest settlement expansion — at Ramat Shlomo in the Jerusalem area — before talks start.
The U.S. State Department said it was not aware of any refusal to hold indirect talks when President Barack Obama’s envoy George Mitchell returns to Jerusalem next week.
The Israeli government agreed a measure to try to avoid a repeat of this week’s diplomatic debacle, when a low-level ministry committee approved plans to build 1,600 new homes, embarrassing Biden and sparking outrage among Arab leaders who had just endorsed a resumption of U.S.-mediated negotiations.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the coalition cabinet would discuss at its weekly meeting on Sunday a measure that would ensure the premier’s team was aware of any sensitive planning decisions before they became public.
Netanyahu did not disavow Tuesday’s decision by a committee at the nterior Ministry — a move that did not breach a partial, temporary settlement freeze he has imposed. But he did criticise the minister, who is from a right-wing religious party in the coalition, for the timing of the announcement, which roiled relations with Obama.