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Unrest erupts in east Jerusalem

Masked Palestinians hurl rocks at Israeli police and burn tyres in disputed east Jerusalem.

Hundreds of Palestinians clashed with police in mainly Arab east Jerusalem today amid heightened tensions in the Holy City where Israel vowed to expand Jewish settlements. As the unrest rocked Jerusalem, US Middle East envoy George Mitchell put a visit to the region on hold amid the most severe diplomatic row in decades between Israel and the United States, which has been struggling to revive peace talks with Palestine. Police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at protesters who hurled rocks at security forces in the Shuafat refugee camp. The Palestinians dispersed after security forces moved in. Similar clashes broke out in other parts of east Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed in a move not recognised by the international community. Police said two officers were injured, but did not mention Palestinian casualties. Several people were arrested, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. A heavy security presence was evident around the Old City, and police said they deployed 3,000 officers in Jerusalem. Israel's announcement last week of plans to build 1,600 new Jewish settler homes in mainly Arab east Jerusalem infuriated not only the Palestinians, but also the US administration which had sent Vice President Joe Biden to the region to promote new Middle East peace talks. Mr Mitchell today postponed a visit to region, the Israeli president's office said, without giving further details. Earlier this month, the Palestinians reluctantly agreed to hold indirect talks with the Israelis after a 14-month hiatus in negotiations, but the outlook for a resumption soon of the peace process looks bleak. The reopening of a twice-destroyed synagogue in Jerusalem's walled Old City yesterday further fuelled tensions. Many Palestinians view Israeli projects near the flashpoint Al Aqsa mosque compound - Islam's third holiest site - as an assault on its tense status quo or a prelude to the building of a third Jewish temple there. Jews call the compound Temple Mount and consider it their holiest site because their second Temple stood there before Romans destroyed it in 70AD. Rival Palestinian factions united in condemning the high-security opening of the landmark synagogue, which had last been destroyed 62 years ago in fighting with Jordan. "This is no mere synagogue," said Hatem Abdel Qader, the official in charge of Jerusalem affairs for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah movement. "This synagogue will be a prelude to violence and religious fanaticism and extremism, and this is not limited to Jewish extremists but includes members of the Israeli government," he added. The Islamist Hamas movement ruling the Gaza Strip declared today a "day of rage and alarm" over the opening of the synagogue in the Old City, calling on Arabs and Muslims to "come to the aid of Jerusalem and Al Aqsa." The United States took strong exception to the Palestinian statements, saying "such incitement" would heighten tensions. "We are deeply disturbed by statements made by several Palestinian officials mischaracterising the event in question, which can only serve to heighten the tensions we see," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said yesterday. Palestinians were all the more irate since Israeli police have maintained restrictions on access to the Al Aqsa mosque compound since Friday. Israel has also sealed off the occupied West Bank citing security reasons. * AFP

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