Page last updated at 22:13 GMT, Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Jerusalem's flickering tinder-box

Palestinian protestors throw stones at Israeli troops, not seen, during clashes in east Jerusalem
Palestinians feel they are being squeezed out of East Jerusalem

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Jerusalem

"They are igniting the whole situation," says Amran Dari, 55, as he cranes his neck to see past the line of Israeli soldiers to the clashes beyond.

"Will there be a third intifada [uprising]? This is the start of it," the unemployed Palestinian said as young men from his Jerusalem neighbourhood, Issawiya, pelted armed Israeli riot police with stones and fireworks.

The numbers involved were not huge - hundreds of Palestinians, not thousands - but the clashes were widespread, with similar scenes played out at several locations across East Jerusalem.

Palestinians at the scene gave a range of reasons for their anger, but there was one common theme - a growing feeling that they are being squeezed out of Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, where they want the capital of their future state.

Call to defend

Emotions are running high over the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third holiest site, in Jerusalem's heavily contested walled Old City.

The site on which it is situated, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and Jews as Temple Mount, is Judaism's holiest site and is next to the Western Wall where Jews from around the world come to pray.

Backdropped by the golden Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa compound, Palestinian youths throw stones at Israeli soldiers
The al-Aqsa mosque is Islam's third holiest site

Police had halted a plan by a right wing Jewish fringe group to enter the mosque compound, but still the call from Palestinian leaders to "defend al-Aqsa" had gone out.

A synagogue was re-opened on Monday in the Old City.

It is in the Jewish quarter, several hundred metres from the Muslim holy site, but was still cited as a source of anger.

And, Israel enraged both the Palestinians and its own ally, the US, last week, by pushing forward with plans for 1,600 homes in a Jewish neighbourhood in East Jerusalem just as US vice president was visiting to launch indirect peace talks.

With tensions high, under a security clampdown, Israel has refused men under 50 access to the al-Aqsa for the past five days, and stopped Palestinians crossing from the West Bank into Jerusalem.

"The people here are fed up, they cannot take it anymore," said Mr Dari.

If you shut a cat in a room, what will happen? It will fight to get out
Rida Zamamiri, 25

"This government is not like any other government that has governed Israel, they want to ignite everything."

"Every time they talk about peace, the answer from the Israeli government is more buildings [in East Jerusalem] and more closures," said Rida Zamamiri, 25, also watching the clashes.

"If you shut a cat in a room, what will happen? It will fight to get out," he says.


Outside the Old City itself, rows of Israeli police vehicles filled the car parks.

The limited number of Palestinians allowed to head for the al-Aqsa compound passed through police barriers, their ID cards checked by the numerous armed police.

The US would never be asked to divide Washington, France would never be asked to divide Paris, why should Israel be asked to divide Jerusalem?
Boris Tuman, student, 19

In the Jewish quarter, school parties wove their way past buskers as business went on as usual.

Workmen were finishing the courtyard in front of the recently rebuilt synagogue.

And religious students with black boxes containing Torah scrolls strapped to their foreheads carried in furniture.

"There is absolutely no connection between the riots and this opening," said Nissim Arzy, manager of development and reconstruction in the Old City's Jewish Quarter.

He blamed extremist Palestinians for "propaganda", blowing tensions far out of proportion.

Divided city

He was keen to give a detailed history of the synagogue, which has been destroyed twice, most recently by Jordanian forces during the war that began in 1948 after the creation of Israel.

And Mr Arzy denied there was ever a plan for right-wingers to enter the al-Aqsa compound.

He pointed out that some rabbis forbid Jews from even setting foot on the area - which they call Temple Mount - because as the site of the ancient Jewish temple it is considered holy ground.

But Boris Tuman, 19, a student at a Jewish seminary in the Old City, argued passionately for their right to do so, dismissing Palestinian anger over the synagogue's opening as "an excuse to riot".

"Every time Jews go up [the Temple Mount], there are huge riots… I don't believe people protesting should stop freedom of religion."

Like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he maintains Jerusalem is Israel's eternal, undivided capital.

"The US would never be asked to divide Washington, France would never be asked to divide Paris, why should Israel be asked to divide Jerusalem?" he asks.

It is not an opinion all Israelis share - but it is a view Palestinians fear currently has the political upper hand.

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