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Confrontations, anger in Jerusalem over building

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli forces sealed off the West Bank and massed riot squads around Jerusalem’s Old City and Arab neighborhoods during Muslim weekly prayers on Friday, facing down Palestinian anger over Jewish settlement expansion.

Israeli border police scuffle with a Palestinian man trying to enter al-Aqsa mosque for Friday prayers in Jerusalem's Old City March 12, 2010. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

After a week in which visiting Vice President Joe Biden condemned Israel for approving new building just as Washington was pushing its key Middle East ally to relaunch peace talks with the Palestinians, police said a plan to avert a repeat of clashes in which dozens were wounded last Friday had worked.

Four Palestinians were detained for throwing stones and two officers were slightly injured in Jerusalem, a police spokesman said. Reuters journalists saw one protester treated by medics.

Israel barred Palestinians from crossing from the West Bank into Israel and Jerusalem, and barred men under 50 from al-Aqsa mosque, the flashpoint holy site in the walled Old City.

As hundreds of youths streamed away from noon prayers at a mosque in the district of Ras al-Amud, a Reuters journalist saw men hurl stones at a car carrying Orthodox Jewish children. One rock smashed a side window, but there were no obvious injuries.

Islamists in the blockaded Gaza Strip rallied supporters to protest at Israel’s policies in Jerusalem, “We will redeem al-Aqsa mosque with our souls and our blood,” the crowd chanted.

As demonstrators burned U.S. and Israeli flags, Khalil al-Hayya, a leader of the Hamas movement which rules Gaza, urged Hamas’s rival, West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to reverse his decision to engage in “proximity talks” with Israel through U.S. mediators after a hiatus of 15 months.

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“These direct and indirect negotiations provide a cover to the Zionist aggression against our people and our lands,” Hayya told the crowd. “Our angry people now are calling on the Palestinian negotiator to back off from these negotiations which encourage more settlements and the Judaisation of Jerusalem.”

U.S. TRIES TO SAVE TALKS

Before he left Israel on Thursday, Biden made clear he did not want Abbas to hold back from talks. These have been cast in doubt by calls from Palestinian officials and the Arab League for Israel to first reverse its latest settlement approval.

The U.S. State Department said it was not aware of any refusal to hold indirect talks when President Barack Obama’s envoy George Mitchell returns to Jerusalem next week.

A State Department spokesman said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone that the plan to build 1,600 new homes near Jerusalem was “a deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship ... and had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process.”

U.S. officials said Mitchell and diplomats were working to maintain the Arab League support that has helped Abbas fend off criticism from Hamas and others that by resuming talks he has given in to U.S. and Israeli pressure. They still hope Mitchell can shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah for talks next week.

Even if he does, however, the two sides remain far apart even on the scope of a planned four-month negotiating window. Israel rejects Palestinian demands that issues at the core of the 60-year-old conflict, including the status of refugees and the sharing of Jerusalem, should be discussed from the outset.

The Israeli government agreed a measure to try to avoid a repeat of this week’s diplomatic debacle, when a low-level ministry committee approved the plan for new settler homes.

A spokesman for said the cabinet would discuss on Sunday a measure that would ensure the premier’s team was notified of sensitive planning decisions.

Netanyahu did not disavow Tuesday’s decision by a committee at the Interior Ministry -- a move that did not breach a partial, temporary settlement freeze he has imposed. But he did criticize the minister, who is from a right-wing religious party in the coalition, for the timing of the announcement.

Additional reporting by Ori Lewis and Darren Whiteside in Jerusalem, Adam Entous in Amman, Andrew Quinn in Washington, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah

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