Violence clouds Middle East peace efforts

Crowds of Palestinian youths went on the rampage in east Jerusalem today as a sudden burst of violence clouded fragile peace efforts.

The Palestinian president signalled he may back away from threats to walk away from the negotiations next week if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proceeds with plans to resume settlement construction in the West Bank.

“I cannot say I will leave the negotiations, but it’s very difficult for me to resume talks if Prime Minister Netanyahu declares that he will continue his (settlement) activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem,” Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said in an address to US Jewish leaders in New York.

The violence was a vivid illustration of how sensitive the situation in east Jerusalem can be. The competing Israeli and Palestinian claims to the area, home to key Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, have frequently escalated into clashes and intense fighting.

Today’s clashes erupted in the Silwan neighbourhood shortly after a 32-year-old Palestinian man was killed by a private Israeli security guard watching over Jewish families in the area. About 70 ultranationalist Jewish families live in Silwan, amid some 50,000 Palestinian residents.

After the shooting, rioting spread throughout Silwan and to the nearby walled Old City. During the man’s funeral procession, hundreds of protesters set tyres on fire and smashed the windows of several buses .

At one point, Israeli riot police stormed the hilltop compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The site is the most explosive in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in the past, even seemingly minor incidents have ignited clashes and protests throughout the region.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police moved into the compound after stone throwers attacked Jewish worshippers at the adjacent Western Wall, the holiest prayer site for Jews.

He said the stone throwers fled into the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, and after a standoff for several minutes, riot forces pulled back without further incident.

In other unrest, Palestinian crowds overturned three cars with passengers inside, in one case dragging a man out of his vehicle and stabbing him. Five buses had their windows smashed out, in one case forcing passengers to get off and flee, and a paramilitary police jeep was set on fire and destroyed.

Wearing shirts over their faces, protesters hurled chunks of concrete and rocks at police. Black-clad forces with riot shields responded with tear gas, sending acrid smoke over the neighbourhood.

A total of 10 Israelis were wounded, including the stabbing victim who was seriously hurt, police said. Palestinian medics said 14 people were lightly hurt. By early evening, the situation had calmed.

Some 50 leaders of Jewish American organisations as well as former diplomats and policymakers attended last night’s meeting with Abbas, who is in New York for the General Assembly of the United Nations. The two-hour gathering was sponsored by the S Daniel Abraham Centre for Middle East Peace.

While Palestinians have traditionally viewed American Jews with suspicion, Abbas has decided instead to court Jewish leaders, believing they can play a positive role in peace efforts.

Throughout his two-hour meeting, Abbas struck a conciliatory tone as he answered questions. On several occasions, he referred to Netanyahu as his “partner” in the quest for peace.

“Is there a more significant and more precious goal than achieving peace?” he said. “We believe that our children and grandchildren deserve a better future for peace, prosperity, dignity and security.”

The US, along with the European Union, has urged Israel to extend its settlement slowdown – a move that Netanyahu is resisting because of heavy pressure within his hard-line governing coalition, which is dominated by pro-settler lawmakers.

At the same time, Washington is pressuring Abbas not to quit the talks just weeks after they got under way at a White House summit.

The settlement issue is one of the thorniest in the peace talks. Some 300,000 Israelis live in settlements dotting the West Bank, in addition to 180,000 Israelis living in Jewish neighbourhoods built in east Jerusalem.

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