16 Mar 2010 17:40:27 GMT
* U.S. reaffirms Israel ties after feud over settlement plan
* Palestinians angered by rededication of synagogue
* Washington envoy calls off Middle East trip
(Adds Clinton quotes, policeman shot and wounded) By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM, March 16 (Reuters) – Palestinians mounted violent protests in Jerusalem on Tuesday and President Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy cancelled plans to return to the region as a U.S.-Israeli crisis over Jewish settlement plans simmered. Hundreds of Palestinian demonstrators clashed with police in several locations in East Jerusalem, captured from Jordan by Israel together with the adjacent West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war. Police responded with teargas and rubber bullets. “We have come to throw stones because that’s all we have and the situation in Jerusalem is dangerous,” a protester said in a confrontation at an Israeli military checkpoint, reminiscent of the early days of the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000.
Medical officials said at least 40 Palestinians were treated in hospitals in the most serious flare-up in the holy city in months. Police said 15 officers were hurt, one shot in the hand by an unidentified gunman. About 60 people were arrested.
The violence was another challenge to Obama’s efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks, suspended since December 2008, which had looked set to resume in the form of indirect negotiations under U.S. mediation. Israel angered Palestinians and touched off a feud with Washington by announcing plans, during a visit last week by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, to build 1,600 homes for Jews in a part of the occupied West Bank it had annexed to Jerusalem. The dispute was described by Israel’s ambassador in Washington as a crisis of historic proportions in traditionally close bilateral relations. Yet U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who last week complained about Israel’s “insulting” behaviour, appeared to take a conciliatory tack on Tuesday.
“We have an absolute commitment to Israel’s security. We have a close, unshakable bond between the United States and Israel,” she told a news briefing in Washington. She said both countries were committed to a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, adding: “… We don’t agree with any of our international partners on everything.” ENVOY’S MISSION CALLED OFF Obama’s envoy, George Mitchell, cancelled plans to return to the region on Tuesday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not halt construction in what he termed Jerusalem neighbourhoods, disputed areas filled with Israeli apartment blocs in and near the city’s eastern sectors. “I think we’ll see what the next days hold and we’re looking forward to Senator Mitchell returning to the region and beginning the proximity talks,” Clinton said. She did not specify when Mitchell’s trip might take place.
Officials in Washington said earlier they were waiting for Israel’s formal response to demands from Clinton. Israeli media said Clinton had asked for the construction plan to be scrapped and for Israel to agree to discuss statehood issues with the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem to be their capital. Netanyahu has voiced regret at the timing of the announcement but said there was consensus in Israel that homes for Jews should be built anywhere in Jerusalem, a city it considers its capital, a claim not recognised internationally. “There is an explosive situation. There are Netanyahu’s policies, which are tantamount to pouring oil on fire,” said Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.
The Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and preaches the Jewish state’s destruction, said in a statement Palestinians should regard Tuesday as “a day of rage against the Occupation’s procedures in Jerusalem against al-Aqsa mosque”. Hamas leaders referred to the renovation of the ancient Hurva synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s walled Old City, saying the work was an Israeli plot to demolish the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site about 400 metres away. Israel has denied the allegation and the U.S. State Department, appealing for calm, expressed concern at what it described as Palestinian incitement. About 500,000 Jews and 2.6 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Palestinians say settlements will deny them a viable state and Washington has warned both sides against moves that could prejudge the outcome of peace talks. (Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by Andrew Dobbie) (For blogs and links on Israeli politics and other Israeli and Palestinian news, go to http://blogs.reuters.com/axismundi)