JERUSALEM // Israel sealed off the West Bank for 48 hours until midnight tonight amid fears of violence as tensions heightened over plans for new homes in East Jerusalem. The order from Ehud Barak, the defence minister, came into force at midnight on Thursday in anticipation of large protests at mosques in Jerusalem after Friday prayers.
Muslim men under the age of 50 were also banned from the compound of Al Aqsa mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites, which Jews refer to as Temple Mount. Prayers ended relatively peacefully, although there were a few scuffles at police blockades in East Jerusalem and several protesters were arrested trying to break through security barriers to enter the mosque. A policeman was "lightly wounded" by stone-throwing youths near the old city, Ynet News reported.
Violent clashes broke out last week after Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, said he planned to include two shrines in the West Bank on a list of Israel's heritage sites. The situation was exacerbated on Tuesday when Israel said it intended to build 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem, a largely Arab area that is considered by the international community to be part of the Occupied Territories. The move was sharply criticised by the US and provoked anger in the West Bank and Gaza.
The two-day restriction will prevent the tens of thousands of Palestinians, who travel to Israel every day to work, from crossing the border. Medical workers, patients, teachers and journalists are still allowed to cross. Roni Ben Efrat, an Israeli political analyst, said that closures were typically imposed during Jewish holidays, when the security forces were understaffed. The current 48-hour restriction, she said, was unusual and an indication of Mr Netanyahu's concern at the mounting tensions in East Jerusalem provoked by his policies.
"The Palestinian Authority is mostly in control of protests in the West Bank, and Netanyahu and the Americans have some leverage to stop things there getting out of control," she said. "But the Islamic movements are directing the popular anger at the Temple Mount and Netanyahu's fear is that things there could really flare up and cause Israel major security and diplomatic problems. The current closure should be understood in this light."
She said East Jerusalem had become the focus of settler activity and was "a powder keg". Normally only those under 40 are prevented from attending Friday prayers at al Aqsa. Abu Mohammed, 48, a caretaker at a Jerusalem municipal school, complained of being excluded yesterday, saying the move would only stoke tensions. "I never participated in anything [violent], this is just collective punishment," said Abu Mohammed, who regularly prays at the mosque. "This will only make people more angry."
Ghassan Khatib, the director of the Palestinian Authority's media centre described the closure and new restrictions at Al Asqa as "unnecessary and provocative". "When Palestinians protest, they are reacting to measures like these, imposed by an occupying power, rather than initiating violence," he said. Rubber bullets and tear gas were used on protesters during last week's skirmishes in Hebron and Jerusalem as Israel's decision to include two West Bank shrines in a list of Israeli heritage sites tagged for restoration was taken as a statement on its sovereignty over the land.
Tuesday's surprise announcement came in the middle of a visit to the country by Joe Biden, the US vice president, who has been pushing indirect US-brokered peace talks between the two sides. Mr Biden, who concluded his regional visit yesterday after talks with King Abdullah of Jordan, was quick to condemn the move. The new settlement throws into doubt the chances for negotiations. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, demanded US assurances of a freeze on the project before talks proceeded.
Israel apologised for the timing of the announcement and said it would revise its planning procedures to avoid future "mishaps". Meanwhile, John Holmes, the United Nations undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, called for Israel to end its blockade of the Gaza Strip which it described as an "open-air prison". Mr Holmes warned of an impending humanitarian disaster if Egypt succeeded in blocking the tunnels through which essential food and medical supplies are smuggled into Gaza. "The situation without the tunnels would be completely unsustainable," said Mr Holmes, AP reported. "What people in Gaza want to see is the opening of the crossings"
Israel has said it will not lift the embargo until Hamas released Israeli Sgt Gilad Schalit, who was captured in 2006. Mr Holmes said to link the fate of 1.5 million Palestinians to the return of Schalit does not seem reasonable. * Additional reporting by Omar Karmi in Ramallah