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Jerusalem violence bares Israeli-Palestinian divide

The latest violence around the Al-Aqsa mosque compound has laid bare the Israeli-Palestinian divide, with both sides blaming each other for the unrest near the flashpoint shrine holy to Muslims and Jews.

world Updated: Oct 07, 2009 08:07 IST

The latest violence around the Al-Aqsa mosque compound has laid bare the Israeli-Palestinian divide, with both sides blaming each other for the unrest near the flashpoint shrine holy to Muslims and Jews.

For the Palestinians, Israel's right-wing government is stoking the flames by tacitly encouraging Jewish ultra-nationalists and settlers to stage provocations at the sensitive site.

"Israel is lighting matches in the hope of sparking a fire, deliberately escalating tensions in occupied east Jerusalem rather than taking steps to placate the situation," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said.

"Israel is escalating tensions in order to further entrench its occupation of east Jerusalem, to intensify its repression of Palestinian resistance to the occupation, and ultimately to scuttle diplomatic efforts aimed at peace," he said.

For Israelis, the responsibility rests with groups among their Arab fellow citizens like the Islamic Movement they say act in collusion with the Hamas movement running Gaza.

"The incidents of the past couple of days -- the importance of which should not be overestimated -- is evidence of Hamas taking the reins of the battle for Jerusalem by giving it a religious dimension," said Eyal Zisser, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University.

He said Hamas aimed to "mobilise the population ahead of Palestinian elections" that could take place next year in order to gain points over the rival Fatah faction of president Mahmud Abbas.

The compound towering above the Old City, known as Al-Haram Al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) to Muslims and the Temple Mount to Jews, lies at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It is Judaism's holiest and Islam's third-holiest shrine and any action that is perceived as changing the status quo around it can spark deadly violence.

In 1929, a wave of bloody riots swept then British mandate Palestine in the name of defending the Noble Sanctuary.

In 1996, the opening of a tunnel adjacent to the compound sparked deadly clashes across the Palestinian territories that killed more than 80 people.

In September 2000, the second Palestinian uprising or intifada erupted after right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon, later prime minister, visited the compound, sparking widespread riots in which police killed Palestinian protestors.

The most recent unrest began on September 27 when a group of people entered the compound during hours in which tourists are allowed to visit the site.

Dozens of Muslim worshippers had gathered inside the compound ahead of time after rumours spread that the police would allow settlers into the holy place.

Police said the group was made up of French tourists, but the Palestinians insisted they were part of a group of Jewish extremists who had gathered intending to enter and began hurling rocks.

A week later sporadic clashes broke out again when police closed access to the compound -- after mosque loudspeakers urged the faithful to gather at the site following new rumours that Jewish hardliners planned to enter.

As media wondered whether a new uprising was at hand, Israeli and Palestinian commentators traded accusations.

Israeli Vice Premier Silvan Shalom told public radio "the battle is under way for sovereignty over Jerusalem and particularly over the Temple Mount."

Palestinian political analyst Ziad Abu Amr said: "What is happening in east Jerusalem is a reaction to the aggressive Israeli policies that manifest themselves in increased settlement activity and house demolitions.

"These actions can only reinforce the suspicions not only of Palestinians and Arabs, but of the entire Muslim world" that Israel intends to "seize the holy place to satisfy the wishes of extremist Jews."

Israeli political scientist Moshe Maoz said, "The tension is serving the interests of extremists on both sides and risks boiling over into a religious conflict.