CROWDS of Palestinian youths went on violent rampages in east Jerusalem yesterday, stoning buses, overturning cars and facing down Israeli riot police at the holy city’s most sensitive religious site following the shooting death of a local man.
The sudden burst of violence immediately clouded fragile peace efforts, even as the Palestinian president signalled he may back down 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 – and combustible – 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.
Yesterday’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 ultra-nationalist Jewish families live in Silwan, amid some 50,000 Palestinian residents.
Israeli police said the man, Samir Sirhan, had a criminal record and was shot after a group of youths pelted the guard with stones. But residents said that Sirhan, a father of five young children, was unlikely to have participated in the violence.
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, smashed the windows of several buses and screamed for revenge. “We will defend you with our blood and souls, Martyr,” protesters chanted.
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 respondedwith 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.
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