Palestinians, Israelis clash ahead of talks

Dozens of people were injured in clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces in Jerusalem and the West Bank on Friday, as tension over land and holy sites mounted ahead of a relaunch of United States-mediated peace negotiations.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of trying to wreck peace efforts and of risking a “war of religion” across the Middle East by police “provocation” at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest spot in Islam, which stands on ground also revered by Jews as the site of their biblical Temple.

Two days before US President Barack Obama’s envoy George Mitchell visits Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a leader of Abbas’s own party said it may not support the move to return to negotiations — pressure that could delay the start of a planned four months of “proximity talks” via US mediators.

Israel blamed Abbas’s Islamist rivals Hamas, rulers of the Gaza Strip, for some of the trouble on Friday. There were also exchanges of tear gas and rocks in Hebron, around the West Bank shrine to Abraham that is also sacred to both Jews and Muslims.

Separately, six Palestinian family members were killed in a car collision with an Israeli military vehicle in the occupied West Bank on Friday, Palestinian police and the Israeli army said, in an incident likely to anger Palestinians.

Rock throwing, stun grenades
In violence during weekly protests against walls and fences Israel is building in and around the West Bank to keep Arabs out of Israel and Jewish settlements on occupied land, a 14-year-old Palestinian youth was hit in the head and badly wounded by a rubber bullet, protesters and Palestinian medics said.

A Reuters journalist at the al-Aqsa mosque compound, which also houses the landmark, gilded Dome of the Rock and is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, said violence began after weekly prayers when youths holding a protest against Israel threw rocks at police who had entered the walled area. Police responded with stun grenades and said they arrested five people in the clashes.

In all, 35 people were hurt — 18 police officers, according to a police spokesperson, and 17 protesters, according to medics.

In an unusually strongly worded statement, Abbas, who is mindful of local criticism of his decision to restart negotiations, said, “The occupation forces are crossing all red lines in an attempt to block the resumption of peace talks.”

Some protesters in Jerusalem, complaining at Netanyahu’s inclusion of sites in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem in an Israeli national heritage plan, flew Hamas banners. The heritage site issue was also cited by protesters in Hebron.

Fatah questions talks move
After more than a year of stalemate, during which Netanyahu was elected to lead a right-leaning coalition, Abbas said this week he would negotiate on a peace deal, albeit indirectly.

In doing so, under pressure from Washington, he abandoned a condition that he would talk only if Israel halted all Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The Arab League endorsed Abbas’s move, setting four months as a timeframe to make progress that could lead to direct talks.

After fierce criticism by Hamas, which rejects talks with Israel, some in Abbas’s own, more secular, Fatah party indicated they too were unhappy with the move to return to the table.

Mohammad Dahlan, a senior figure, told Reuters he favoured maintaining Abbas’s previous policy of rejecting talks until Israel froze all settlements. Questioning the Israeli leader’s good faith — “Netanyahu wants to delude his people into thinking there is a peace process” — Dahlan said Fatah leaders would meet Saturday to review Abbas’s decision to negotiate.

US officials say Mitchell, who has spend many months in shuttle diplomacy to reach this point, will meet Netanyahu on Sunday and Abbas on Monday before returning to Washington.

An Israeli diplomatic source said these meetings aimed to prepare the ground for a start of the “proximity talks” later.

In Washington, State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley said the question of exactly when the indirect talks would begin “will be part of the discussion” in Mitchell’s meetings and that Washington may have more to say about it on Monday.

Palestinian negotiators say they want to use the four months to narrow gaps on core issues in the six-decade-old conflict, which has eluded resolution despite 20 years of talks.

Netanyahu and his coalition allies have made clear that, especially given the strength of Hamas in both Gaza and the West Bank, they want Palestinian independence kept on hold for now. – Reuters

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