Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has ordered the army to seal off the West Bank for 48 hours until midnight on Saturday. Israeli police have also said they would bar Muslim men under the age of 50 from Friday prayers at a Jerusalem mosque.
AFP - Israel sealed off the West Bank on Friday amid tension in Jerusalem over controversial plans to build new homes for Jewish settlers and fears of fresh violence at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound.
Israeli police also barred men under the age of 50 from prayers at the Jerusalem site of the mosque compound, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews and where clashes broke out last week.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak ordered the army to seal off the Israeli-occupied West Bank until midnight on Saturday, an army spokesman said, citing a heightened risk of attacks.
Since the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000, Israel has sealed off the West Bank ahead of major holidays, but only rarely on other occasions.
The closure was announced one day after US Vice President Joe Biden concluded a visit of the West Bank and Israel aimed at promoting renewed peace talks but marred by an announcement that 1,600 new settler homes would be built in annexed east Jerusalem.
The announcement infuriated the US administration, ignited international condemnation and cast doubts over the outlook for the indirect talks which the Palestinians had reluctantly agreed to hold after a 14-month hiatus in negotiations.
The Arab League withdrew its support for the indirect talks and the Palestinians said Israel's move severely damaged the peace process.
US Middle East envoy George Mitchell on Thursday called Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who is on a visit to Tunisia, to press him to go ahead with the planned talks, a Palestinian official said, asking not to be named.
But Abbas demanded US guarantees that Israel first freeze the project to build new homes in the east Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo.
Abbas told US officials that "it is very difficult for us to go to any negotiations, direct or indirect, without the cancellation of the Israeli building project," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP on Friday.
The US State Department insisted on Thursday it had not heard anything to indicate the Palestinians had pulled out of the planned talks. It said the talks could still go ahead and pointed out Mitchell due back in the region next week.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday apologised for the timing of the settlement announcement made as Biden was holding a day of talks in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
Biden welcomed a clarification that construction would not start for several years, saying this would give negotiators time to tackle the issue, but he also reiterated condemnation of Israel's go-ahead for the project.
The Palestinians, however, dismissed the statement, saying the issue was the plan itself, not the timing of the announcement.
The international community considers all Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, to be illegal.
Under US pressure, Israel imposed in November a partial, 10-month moratorium on settlement projects in the West Bank, excluding east Jerusalem.
Israel, which seized east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community, considers the city its eternal and indivisible capital.
The Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state.
Police stepped up security in east Jerusalem on Friday, particularly around the Old City, where the Al-Aqsa mosque compound is situated.
Clashes between rock-throwing protesters and Israeli police broke out at the site last week after Netanyahu decided to include two West Bank holy sites on a list of Israeli heritage sites.
The hilltop compound containing Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock is Islam's third-holiest site, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Jews call the site Temple Mount and consider it their holiest site.
Date created : 2010-03-12