JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) - Palestinian protesters fought with Israeli security forces in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank on Friday, the latest clashes in a fortnight of violence over access to Jerusalem’s holiest site.
At the Qalandia checkpoint separating Ramallah from Jerusalem, troops fired rubber bullets as several hundred protesters marched, some throwing rocks and petrol bombs.
In East Jerusalem, police fired tear gas to disperse protesters hurling firecrackers and burning tires that sent up huge clouds of black smoke in Shoafat refugee camp.
Palestinian and regional anger, still simmering over Israel’s war with Gaza’s Hamas movement in July and August, has focused in the last two weeks on Jerusalem’s holiest site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount.
For decades, Israel has maintained a ban on Jews praying at the site, which houses the Dome of the Rock and the 8th-century al-Aqsa mosque and was also the site of ancient Jewish temples.
But in recent weeks, protests have gathered momentum against a campaign by far-right Jewish nationalists to be allowed to pray there.
Israeli security forces have clashed at the compound with Muslim worshippers angry at what they see as an assault on the shrine, which is administered by Islamic authorities, and last week Israel shut down all access to the site for the first time in more than a decade, after a Palestinian gunman shot an Israeli ultranationalist. Palestinian drivers have rammed into Israeli pedestrians in the city, killing four people.
The EU’s new foreign affairs chief said the upsurge in violence made it all the more critical that Israel and the Palestinians resume peace negotiations.
“The risk of growing tensions here in Jerusalem ... is that, if we do not move forward on the political track, we will go back, and back again to violence,” Federica Mogherini told reporters after meeting Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman during her first official visit to the region.
The last talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in April after months of largely fruitless negotiation, with the Palestinians angry at the continued building of Jewish settlements in occupied territory, and Israel furious at attempts to bring the Islamist group Hamas, which officially denies Israel’s right to exist, into the Palestinian government.
Mogherini said it was time for the EU to take a bigger role in brokering peace talks, a task until now shouldered by Washington.
After meeting her, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated that the status quo governing Temple Mount would not change.
At the same time as calling for calm, Netanyahu has accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of instigating the violence, putting the prospect of any return to negotiations even further out of reach.
An official in Netanyahu’s office who declined to be named said the prime minister had sought judicial authorization to raze the homes of Palestinians involved in lethal attacks against Israelis.
Israel has often demolished Palestinian homes in the West Bank in retaliation for attacks, despite the protests of human rights groups who say it amounts to collective punishment, but it has rarely done so in Jerusalem.
The Palestinians, for their part, are far from presenting a united front.
Abbas’s Fatah movement and the Gaza-based Hamas, at daggers drawn since Hamas drove Fatah’s forces out of Gaza in 2007, agreed in June to form a “reconciliation” government, but have so far failed to put the unity cabinet to work.
On Friday, around 15 small explosions targeted the homes and vehicles of Fatah officials in Gaza, causing minor damage but no injuries, witnesses and members of Fatah said.
One of the targets hit was a stage where the 10th anniversary of the death of Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian president and Fatah leader, is to be commemorated on Nov. 11.
Fatah and Hamas blamed each other for the blasts.
“We will not allow the return of internal conflicts, chaos and anarchy to the Gaza Strip,” said Eyad Al-Bozom, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, run by officials loyal to Hamas.
“The security services will pursue anyone who had any connection to these criminal acts.”
The tension between Fatah and Hamas has hampered efforts to rebuild Gaza after the July-August war, in which more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed, as well as more than 70 Israelis.
Mogherini was due to visit Gaza on Saturday for talks with Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.
Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem and Noah Browning in Ramallah; Editing by Kevin Liffey