Israel lifts closure of West Bank as tensions calm
JERUSALEM: Israel on Wednesday lifted its tight restrictions on Palestinian access to Jerusalem's holiest shrine and called off an extended West Bank closure after days of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces.
Despite moving to end the lockdown, Israel still kept thousands of police officers on alert as an uneasy calm settled over the holy city.
The recent violence has taken place against a backdrop of deep Palestinian frustration over a yearlong standstill in peace talks and dovetailed with the worst U.S.-Israeli diplomatic feud in decades.
On Tuesday, the U.S. and Israel signaled they were trying to move beyond the crisis that erupted when Israel announced plans to build 1,600 apartments in disputed east Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden's visit last week. Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke by phone Tuesday night, Israeli officials said.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of the conversation, did not disclose the substance of the talk.
While there were no reports of new clashes in Jerusalem, sporadic violence broke out Wednesday in the West Bank. The most serious incident occurred in the northern city of Nablus, where dozens of Palestinian youths hurled rocks at Israeli security forces, some using slingshots and even a shovel to increase their range.
Israeli troops responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Medics said two Palestinians were wounded.
The recent protests have been fueled by the plans for more Jewish housing in east Jerusalem and unsubstantiated rumors that Jewish extremists are planning to seize the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Islam's third-holiest shrine.
East Jerusalem, which saw the heaviest clashes in months after similar rumors surfaced earlier this week, was quiet Wednesday.
Israel lifted restrictions on Palestinian access to Al-Aqsa, a day after the heaviest violence in months broke out across the city. The Israelis said the decision to end the lockdown was based on intelligence reports.
Israel also rescinded its closure of the West Bank that had prevented virtually all Palestinians there from crossing into Israel. Thousands of Palestinians enter Israel each day for work, medical care and other services.
The hilltop where Al-Aqsa stands is also Judaism's holiest site, the Temple Mount, where the biblical Jewish temples once stood. The conflicting claims to the compound make the future of the holy city the most charged issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and immediately annexed the area. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their capital.
The U.S., which has been working for more than a year to get both sides negotiating again, has harshly criticized the latest Israeli construction plan. This week, Mideast envoy George Mitchell called off a trip to the area that had been expected to wrap up preparations for U.S.-mediated talks to begin.
In the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed Washington's criticism of Israel, and noted that the Jewish state had committed to stopping all settlement construction under a 2003 peace blueprint known as the "road map."
"Right now, the U.S. administration is expressing this strongly. I ask that (Israel) abide by these commitments so we can head to indirect talks," he said.
Israel says the Palestinians haven't met their road map obligations to root out militants.
Israeli officials say they have been discussing with Washington ways to salvage the talks. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to defuse the situation by stressing the U.S. commitment to Israel's security, though she said she is still waiting for Israel to prove it's serious about making peace.
In a measure of how tense the situation remained Wednesday, Israeli officials scrambled to respond to an inaccurate report that Israel had issued new construction bids for an additional 309 Jewish apartments in east Jerusalem.
Government spokesmen called journalists to point out that the plans dated back to December, and the Construction Ministry swiftly produced documents that showed the bids were not released when Biden was here, as had been reported.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, immediately distanced himself from his brother-in-law's characterization of President Barack Obama as "anti-Semitic" because of the U.S. leader's objection to Israeli construction in east Jerusalem.
In a statement issued by his office, the prime minister said he "strenuously" objected to the comments made by Hagi Ben Artzi — an ultranationalist who has made controversial comments in the past — and expressed "deep appreciation" for Obama's commitment to Israel's security.
Netanyahu himself objects to partitioning Jerusalem and exempted the city's eastern sector from a recent settlement slowdown he enacted in the West Bank.
Israel maintains that its annexation of east Jerusalem after capturing it 1967 entitles it to build there, but the Palestinians and the international community do not recognize Israeli sovereignty there.