- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2010

UPDATED:

JERUSALEM (AP) — Hundreds of Palestinians in east Jerusalem set tires and garbage bins ablaze on Tuesday and hurled rocks at Israeli riot police, who responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. The heaviest clashes in months broke out as an American envoy abruptly canceled a visit, deepening a U.S.-Israeli diplomatic feud.

The violence spread from Arab neighborhood to Arab neighborhood across the eastern side of the volatile city. Angered by plans for more Jewish housing in predominantly Arab east Jerusalem and unsubstantiated rumors surrounding the rededication of an Old City synagogue, Palestinians clashed with Israeli forces throughout the day.

In one incident, youths hoisted a giant Palestinian flag and shouted, “We shall die, and Palestine shall live.”

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Thousands of police, including anti-riot units armed with assault rifles, stun grenades and batons, were deployed across east Jerusalem in anticipation of the unrest.

Palestinian medics said 10 people were seriously wounded, five from rubber bullets. Israeli police said 14 security men suffered light wounds and 60 protesters were arrested.

“They are donkeys and dwarfs!” a woman screamed as riot police and plainclothes security men hauled away a handcuffed, hooded youth. Police pinned the youth to the ground, setting muzzled Doberman pinschers near them as the young man shrieked in panic.

Palestinian merchants in east Jerusalem shuttered their stores in solidarity with the protests, and Palestinian schools in the city were closed. Small clashes also took place in several West Bank towns.

The diplomatic crisis with the United States was sparked by Israel’s announcement last week of plans for 1,600 apartments in east Jerusalem, which undercut a visit by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. aimed at bolstering peace talks. Palestinians claim that sector of the city for a future capital. Israel claims all of the holy city as its eternal capital.

The announcement enraged Palestinians, who have threatened to bow out of U.S.-brokered peace talks that were supposed to begin in the coming days. The Obama administration angrily has demanded that Israel call off the project.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio on Tuesday that demands to halt construction “are unreasonable as far as we are concerned.” He predicted the row with the United States would blow over, saying neither side had an interest in escalation.

But Washington notified Israel that its special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, had put off his trip to the region indefinitely.

The State Department said it was still awaiting a formal response from Israel after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton upbraided Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a 43-minute phone call Friday.

Spokesman P.J. Crowley also said a lot is riding on whether Israel agrees to take steps suggested by Mrs. Clinton to underscore its commitment to the peace process and strong relations with America.

“We will evaluate the implications of this once we hear back from the Israelis and see how they respond to our concerns,” he said Monday.

Mr. Netanyahu has apologized for the timing of the project’s approval but has not said it would be canceled. On Monday, he defended four decades of Jewish construction in east Jerusalem and said it “in no way” hurts Palestinians.

The feud is feeding already high tensions in east Jerusalem, where Jews and Palestinians live together uneasily.

Palestinian officials called on the public to defend Muslim religious interests in Jerusalem after the rededication Monday of a historic synagogue in the Jewish quarter of the Old City. The rededication has stoked unsubstantiated rumors that Jewish extremists are planning to take over the hilltop shrine at the crux of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the unrest appears to reflect a deeper frustration over the yearlong standstill in peace efforts. “Israel has reached a stage where people cannot take it anymore,” said Hatem Abdel Qader, an adviser on Jerusalem affairs to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “Jerusalem is witnessing the largest Jewish projects aimed at swallowing the city. This strong reaction from the Palestinian street sends a message to the Israelis that we will not accept that.”

Israel annexed east Jerusalem after capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. Most Israelis accept the Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem as part of Israel, and previous peace proposals have allowed them to remain in Israeli hands.

But the international community does not recognize the annexation and considers the Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem to be illegal settlements. Some 180,000 Jews now live in a ring of Israeli neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, alongside 250,000 Palestinians in Arab neighborhoods.

Israel’s president, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres, warned against a deterioration of Israel-U.S. ties in a speech Tuesday.

“We must develop friendships with other nations, especially with the United States, to ensure political backing in our hour of need and military support against the dangers that face us,” Mr. Peres said. “We cannot afford to unravel the delicate fabric of friendship with the United States.”

Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid and Dalia Nammari in Jerusalem and Karin Laub and Mohammed Daraghmeh in the West Bank contributed to this report.

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