Israeli authorities broke up a series of Palestinian cultural events as part of a crackdown in Jerusalem, disrupting a children’s march and bursting balloons at a school celebration.
Elsewhere in Jerusalem, hundreds of Israelis gathered outside the residence of prime minister Ehud Olmert to mark the 1,000th day in captivity of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
The demonstration took place at a protest tent set up by the soldier’s family and many in the crowd quietly waved yellow glow sticks in a show of solidarity.
Palestinian activists called for the celebrations to mark the Arab League’s designation of Jerusalem as the capital of Arab culture for 2009. The 23-nation group chooses a different city for the honour each year.
But Israel said the events breached a ban on Palestinian political activity in Jerusalem. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas criticised the crackdown.
Announcing the ban on yesterday’s events, Israel’s internal security minister Avi Dichter accused Mr Abbas’ Palestinian Authority of being behind the activities. Israel does not allow the Palestinian government to operate in Jerusalem.
At one event, teenage girls at an east Jerusalem Catholic school released a dozens of balloons in the red, white, green and black colours of the Palestinian flag over the walled Old City. Israeli military police and soldiers quickly moved into the playground and popped the remaining balloons, pupils said.
The dispute over Jerusalem lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has been the most sensitive issue in peace talks.
Israel says the entire city of Jerusalem is its undivided capital. Palestinians want east Jerusalem – captured by Israel in the 1967 war and site of key Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites – as the capital of a future state.
Israel’s annexation is not internationally recognised.
Speaking in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Mr Abbas said Israel’s policies in Jerusalem were undermining the chances for peace.
“The policy of discrimination, suppression, stealing the land, destruction of neighbourhoods and homes, the policy of falsifying the past, destroying the present and stealing the future should all stop if peace is to have a real opportunity in this land,” he said.
He urged the incoming Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to resume stalled peace negotiations on all issues of dispute, including Jerusalem. Mr Netanyahu rejects any division of the holy city.
Mr Olmert had hoped to arrange a prisoner swap with Hamas that would bring home the captured soldier, Sergeant Gilad Schalit, before he leaves office.
But earlier this week, Mr Olmert said Hamas’ demands were excessive, strongly signalling he would turn over the matter to the new administration. Hamas is seeking the release of some 450 imprisoned militants, including dozens convicted of killing Israelis.
Mr Netanyahu is putting together a coalition government following elections last month and has two more weeks to complete the task.
Sgt Schalit’s father, Noam, urged Mr Olmert to continue his efforts as long as he remains prime minister. “We want Gilad Schalit back home immediately - immediately, not in another 1,000 days, not even in another 100 days,” he said.