Clashes break out over Israeli plan to renovate holy sites
Palestinian youths clashed with Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Hebron Thursday over an Israeli plan to renovate two hotly contested religious sites. The plan has been criticized by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
AFP - Around 100 Palestinians clashed with Israeli troops in the West Bank town of Hebron on Thursday over an Israeli plan to renovate two deeply contested holy sites in the occupied territory.
The plan has infuriated Palestinians and been criticised by the United States as a "provocative" act that could further complicate efforts to relaunch Middle East peace talks suspended during the Gaza war more than a year ago.
Young men hurled rocks at soldiers who fired tear gas and stun grenades in running clashes near the disputed Tomb of the Patriarchs, according to an AFP correspondent who saw four Palestinians detained by soldiers.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said "several illegal riots are taking place in a number of places around Hebron."
"The protesters are burning tyres and throwing firebombs and rocks at Israeli security forces, who are responding with crowd-dispersal means," she added.
A Palestinian was accidentally struck by rocks thrown by other protesters, according to the AFP correspondent, as was an Israeli border guard, who was hospitalised.
Later, around 300 people, including dozens of foreign and Israeli activists, attempted to march to the disputed site but were dispersed by troops, the correspondent said.
And an AFP photographer was detained by authorities for several hours after a scuffle between news photographers and security forces.
It was the fourth day of clashes in the town following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement that the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem would be included in a heritage restoration plan.
The Palestinians have expressed outrage, with their Western-backed president Mahmud Abbas warning of a "religious war" and the Islamist Hamas rulers of Gaza calling on West Bank residents to "rise up" against Israel.
US President Barack Obama's administration, which has been struggling for months to relaunch peace talks, also criticised the move.
"We have asked both parties to refrain from provocative and unilateral actions that undermine efforts to resume negotiations to end the conflict," said US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley.
"We have raised this directly with the Israeli government," he added.
Israel has accused the Palestinians of overreacting, and on Thursday Netanyahu said the controversy stemmed from a "misunderstanding."
"There will be no change in the status quo, not at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and not at Rachel's Tomb," he told Israel's Channel 9 television, promising "full freedom of worship" for all faiths.
The Hebron site, revered by Jews and Muslims alike as the burial place of the biblical patriarch Abraham, has frequently been the scene of violence.
A few hundred hardline Jewish settlers live under heavy Israeli military protection near the site in the heart of the town of 160,000 Palestinians.
Israelis worship in a part of the Ibrahimi mosque above the tomb that has been converted into a synagogue.
The latest clashes came on the 16th anniversary of the infamous February 25, 1994 shooting massacre of 29 Palestinian worshippers in the mosque by US-born Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein before he himself was lynched.
The latest tensions came as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate Appropriations Committee she hoped peace talks would "commence shortly."
The Palestinians have refused to return to peace talks without a complete halt to Israeli settlement growth, though Abbas has left the door open to indirect talks, provided he receives certain guarantees from Washington.
But senior Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo has said Israel's statements on the holy sites could now make it "difficult, if not impossible" to launch even indirect talks.