JERUSALEM (Reuters) – 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 (US) 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 peace negotiator Saeb Erakat said.
“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 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.
Tourist presence disputed
The clash occurred 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.