Israeli air strikes over the Gaza Strip in retaliation for a fatal rocket attack lent a fresh sense of urgency to international Middle East talks held in Moscow today. Tension was also high in Jerusalem, where thousands of police braced for the possibility of new clashes in and around the Old City and authorities again imposed restrictions on the main weekly prayers at the flashpoint Al Aqsa mosque compound.
In Gaza, Israeli aircraft conducted predawn strikes, which the military said targeted six "terror sites," including a weapons manufacturing facility and two tunnels designed to infiltrate Israel in order to carry out attacks. A Thai labourer working in an Israeli village near the border was killed yesterday in the first fatal rocket strike from Gaza since the January 2009 end of Israel's devastating 22-day offensive on the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave.
The al Qa'eda-inspired Ansar al Sunna Brigade claimed responsibility for the rocket attack, linking it to clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli police in Jerusalem earlier in the week. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is due to visit the region over the weekend, condemned the killing, saying "such acts of terror" are unacceptable and contrary to international law. EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton told journalists she was "extremely shocked" by the rocket attack, which took place while she was visiting the impoverished Gaza Strip.
Both Ms Ashton and Mr Ban were taking part in today's meeting of the international Quartet for the Middle East in Moscow, together with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. The increased diplomatic activity comes amid heightened religious and political tension that saw dozens injured in clashes between Palestinians and police in east Jerusalem on Tuesday.
As a result, an Israeli police spokesman said thousands of officers were being kept on alert on Friday and that men under the age of 50 were barred from entering the Al Aqsa mosque compound. An already charged atmosphere intensified after a rebuilt 17th-century synagogue was opened this week in the Jewish quarter of the Old City, a few hundred metres from the compound, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews.
Tensions have also flared between staunch allies Israel and the United States over US complaints about Israeli plans to build 1,600 homes for Jewish settlers in annexed Arab east Jerusalem. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said late yesterday that he had spoken to Mrs Clinton over the telephone about "mutual confidence-building measures" that could be carried out by Israel and the Palestinians.
His office gave no details of the proposed measures or whether Netanyahu had answered US concerns. What particularly infuriated Washington was the timing of the settlement announcement, which came as vice president Joe Biden was in Jerusalem to promote a deal for US-brokered indirect peace negotiations. The Palestinians have refused to return to direct talks until Israel freezes all settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, including east Jerusalem, and the settlement announcement threatened to scupper the US-negotiated compromise.
Despite the bitter diplomatic row, US president Barack Obama has insisted there is no crisis. And a sweeping majority of Israelis ? 69 per cent ? believe Mr Obama is being "friendly and fair" towards Israel, according to an opinion poll published by the Haaretz newspaper on Friday. Forty-eight per cent of respondents believe settlement construction must continue in east Jerusalem even at the expense of a rift with the US administration.
But 41 per cent want Israel to accept a US demand to freeze settlement construction in the Holy City pending the conclusion of proposed new peace talks. The settlement issue and the status of Jerusalem are among the thorniest issues in the peace process. Israel sees Jerusalem as its eternal, indivisible capital while Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state. US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who brokered the now uncertain deal for indirect talks, is due back in the region on Sunday, a senior Palestinian official said.
He is expected to meet Mr Netanyahu before the Israeli premier leaves for a US visit that evening. *AFP