Palestinians freeze ties with Israel after violent clashes over shrine in Jerusalem

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 July, 2017, 7:06am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 July, 2017, 8:44pm

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday froze ties with Israel hours after clashes with Israeli security forces in East Jerusalem and the West Bank left three Palestinians dead and hundreds injured, in one of the worst days of unrest in years.

Later in the evening, two Israelis were stabbed to death by a Palestinian in the settlement of Halamish, northwest of Ramallah, according to the Israel Defense Forces. The attacker was later killed.

The violence broke out after thousands of Muslim worshippers held prayers and demonstrations around Jerusalem’s Old City in a standoff with Israeli police to protest new Israeli metal detectors at the entrance to a plaza holy to Jews and Muslims outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The security move has escalated tensions in the Palestinian territories and spurred a crisis between Israel and its neighbours because it is viewed as an effort by Israel to tighten control over the religious site.

After an emergency meeting Friday evening with top aides in Ramallah, Abbas conditioned a resumption of contacts with Israel on the removal of the metal detectors.

“They are a political move hiding under the cover of an imaginary security pretext that aims to control Al-Aqsa Mosque and evade the peace process as well as turn the conflict from a political one to a religious conflict,” Abbas said, according to a statement on the Palestinian official news agency.

In a rare sight, worshippers filled Salah el Din street, an East Jerusalem commercial thoroughfare just outside Herod’s Gate, as demonstrators chanted, “Oh armies, destroy their thrones” and “Rattle the knife.”

Despite fiery sermons and chants opposite hundreds of Israeli riot police around the Old City, the noontime prayers ended with only isolated incidents of violence. But in the hour or so after the crowds dispersed in the vicinity of the Old City, the clashes began to spread throughout East Jerusalem and to the West Bank.

Rioters hurled rocks, Molotov cocktails and firecrackers, and security forces responded with tear gas and stun grenades. An Israeli police spokesman said five officers were slightly injured, and about a dozen rioters were arrested. Palestinian medics said they treated people who had been injured with rubber and live bullets.

The dead included Mohammed Sharaf, 18, and Hassan Abu Ghannam, 20, who were killed amid clashes in the Jerusalem neighbourhoods of Ras el Amud and A Tur, respectively. Mohammed Lafi was killed in the West Bank town of Abu Dis, just outside the Jerusalem border.

According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, nearly 400 demonstrators were injured during the Friday clashes.

Mourners carried bodies of the dead through the streets and chanted, “We will continue the fight.” Meanwhile, scuffles broke out at Al Makassed hospital in East Jerusalem when Israeli police arrived to search for suspects in the rioting.

In the West Bank, clashes and casualties were reported in the Qalandiya refugee camp, in Bethlehem and Hebron. In Gaza, Palestinians held demonstrations near Israeli military positions along the border.

Jerusalem holy site shuttered after deadly Temple Mount attack

The casualty count and the widening chaos seemed to confirm warnings through the week about the risk of a dangerous escalation from the standoff over the metal detectors and the esplanade. The site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, is a tinderbox of religious tensions, and has touched off waves of Palestinian-Israeli violence in the past.

The Muslim Waqf authority responsible for the Al-Aqsa Mosque has encouraged believers to demonstrate opposite the metal detectors, but not to go through them. Amid pressure to defuse the tension, Israel in recent days had been holding quiet talks with Jordan, which is the official custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

Israeli media reported that security leaders were divided over what to do about the metal detectors, with the Israeli army and the Shin Bet supporting removing the equipment and the police recommending that it remain in place.

But after an emergency session hours before the prayers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet decided to keep the metal detectors.

“The metal detectors are a critical tool for ensuring the security of all visitors to the mount,” said Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan before the Cabinet meeting, according to the Israeli news outlet Maariv-NRG.

The police also imposed an age restriction for the first time in years, banning male worshippers under the age of 50 from participating, further inflaming tensions.

Abbas, who had cut short a visit to China ahead of Friday prayers, huddled with advisers and officials. At the end of the meeting, Abbas announced that he had decided to suspend contacts “on all levels”, implying that he had decided to suspend coordination between Palestinian security forces and the Israeli army in the West Bank as well.

The cooperation is credited with keeping stability in the West Bank in recent years, but that could be upended by a freeze in security ties at a time of a wave in rioting.