Erekat: Israel deliberately escalating tensions in Jerusalem
Chief negotiator says Israel undermining peace efforts as Israeli police clash with Palestinians at Temple Mount.
Palestinian leaders warned Israel on Sunday not to stoke tension in Jerusalem in the hope of thwarting peace talks, after clashes at a sacred site in which Palestinians and Israeli police were injured.
"At a time when [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama is trying to bridge the divide between Palestinians and Israelis, and to get negotiations back on track, Israel is deliberately escalating tensions in Jerusalem," chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erakat said Sunday evening.
"We've seen this before, and we know what the consequences are," the Palestinian minister added, in a statement that recalled the visit of then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the site in Jerusalem's Old City in 2000.
Sharon's presence at al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, triggered the second Palestinian uprising (intifada) and dealt the biggest setback to peace efforts in years.
The reasons behind Sunday's clash were disputed.
According to legislator Hathem Abdel Kader and other Palestinian sources, the clash erupted in the early morning when Palestinians inside the complex - sacred to both Islam and Judaism - saw a group of 15 religious Jews trying to enter.
The Jews never managed to get into the complex, because several hundred Palestinians, who were on alert for such a possibility, began a loud protest. Israeli police responded with tear gas then stun grenades.
Presence of tourists disputed
The clash occurred mere hours before the start of Yom Kippur, the solemn "Day of Atonement" which is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Police were on alert for violent protests in several flashpoints where Jews and Arabs live side by side.
Protesters threw stones, chairs and whatever they could lay hands on as riot police rushed to the scene. Video showed them trying to drive police away from the doorway of the al-Aqsa mosque, but there was no sign that police entered it.
Police said 17 officers were hurt and 11 rioters arrested, and medics said 13 Palestinians were treated for injuries. There were no reports of serious injury or death.
Israeli police said it began when religious Palestinians angered by immodestly dressed tourists grew violent.
Palestinians dismissed that account, saying no tourists were involved. There was no further comment from Israeli authorities, who were observing the Yom Kippur silence.
"Providing a police escort for settlers who are against peace at all costs, and whose presence is deliberately designed to provoke a reaction, are not the actions of someone who is committed to peace, but of someone who will go to extraordinary lengths to scuttle all hopes of peace," Erakat said.
He said it was "deliberately timed to coincide with the eve of the anniversary of that visit" by a government "emboldened by its ability to fend off calls for a settlement freeze".
The complex is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary). Located above the Jewish prayer site at the Western Wall, it includes al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock mosque.
In Muslim tradition, the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven from the rock at the centre of what is now the Dome of the Rock shrine. The gilded dome sits over the spot where Jews believe Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac to God before an angel stayed his hand.
Jewish visitors need permission from Israeli police to visit this part of the site. During mass Muslim prayers, Israel also restricts access by Palestinian Muslim men under 50.
Sharon's 2000 visit enraged Palestinians and the resulting uprising rapidly escalated, with numerous suicide bomb attacks on Israeli civilians.
Hamas brands clash at Temple Mount a 'Zionist crime'
Earlier Sunday, the Islamist group Hamas branded the clash at the Temple Mount as a "Zionist crime" and a provocation.
"The Israeli occupation is not interested in calm," the Palestinian news agency Ma'an quoted Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesperson, as saying. The news agency said Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, called for Palestinians to rise up against Israel to retaliate for the incident.
Ma'an also quoted other Islamists in Gaza as calling for an uprising and condemning Israel.
"The Israeli assault is part of a central Israeli decision to escalate in the whole region," Islamic Jihad leader Khalid Al-Batsh was quoted as saying. "This escalation might reach neighboring Arab countries."
Despite the clashes, Jewish worshippers continued to pray at the Western Wall - situated below the Temple Mount - in the lead-up to Yom Kippur.
On Saturday, the Israel Defense Forces said it would place the West Bank under general closure until the end of Yom Kippur due to security concerns.