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Abbas freezes relations with Israel after deadly clashes over Jerusalem shrine

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday froze ties with Israel hours after clashes with Israeli security forces in East Jerusalem and the West Bank left three Palestinians dead and hundreds injured, in one of the worst days of unrest in years.

Three Israelis were stabbed to death by a Palestinian in the settlement of Halamish, northwest of Ramallah, according to the Israel Defense Forces. The attacker was later shot by an off-duty soldier who was in the area and taken to the hospital in critical condition, the IDF said.

A fourth Israeli was injured in the stabbing, which occurred around 9:30, according to the army.

The violence broke out after thousands of Muslim worshippers held prayers and demonstrations around Jerusalem’s Old City in a standoff with Israeli police to protest new Israeli metal detectors at the entrance to a plaza holy to Jews and Muslims outside the Al Aqsa Mosque. The security move has escalated tensions in the Palestinian territories and spurred a crisis between Israel and its neighbors because it is viewed as an effort by Israel to tighten control over the religious site.

After an emergency meeting Friday evening with top aides in Ramallah, Abbas conditioned a resumption of contacts with Israel on the removal of the metal detectors.

“They are a political move hiding under the cover of an imaginary security pretext that aims to control Al Aqsa Mosque and evade the peace process as well as turn the conflict from a political one to a religious conflict,” Abbas said, according to a statement on the Palestinian official news agency.

In a rare sight during noon prayers, worshippers filled Salah el Din street, an East Jerusalem commercial thoroughfare just outside Herod’s Gate, as demonstrators chanted, “Oh armies, destroy their thrones” and “Rattle the knife.”

Despite fiery sermons and chants opposite hundreds of Israeli riot police around the Old City, the noontime prayers ended with only isolated incidents of violence. But in the hour or so after the crowds dispersed in the vicinity of the Old City, the clashes began to spread throughout East Jerusalem and to the West Bank.

Rioters hurled rocks, Molotov cocktails and firecrackers, and security forces responded with tear gas and stun grenades. An Israeli police spokesman said five officers were slightly injured, and about a dozen rioters were arrested. Palestinian medics said they treated people who had been injured with rubber and live bullets.

The dead included Mohammed Sharaf, 18, and Hassan Abu Ghannam, 20, who were killed amid clashes in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ras el Amud and A Tur, respectively. Mohammed Lafi was killed in the West Bank town of Abu Dis, just outside the Jerusalem border. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, nearly 400 demonstrators were injured during the Friday clashes.

Mourners carried bodies of the dead through the streets and chanted, “We will continue the fight.” Meanwhile, scuffles broke out at Al Makassed hospital in East Jerusalem when Israeli police arrived to search for suspects in the rioting.

In the West Bank, clashes and casualties were reported in the Qalandiya refugee camp, in Bethlehem and Hebron. In Gaza, Palestinians held demonstrations near Israeli military positions along the border.

The casualty count and the widening chaos seemed to confirm warnings through the week about the risk of a dangerous escalation from the standoff over the metal detectors and the esplanade. The site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, is a tinderbox of religious tensions, and has touched off waves of Palestinian-Israeli violence in the past.

In neighboring Jordan, thousands streamed into Amman's downtown district to pray at the Husseini mosque and to take part in a protest that brought both Jordan's Islamist and leftist parties together. Egypt’s foreign ministry called on Israel to “immediately stop the violence and intensified security against the Palestinians.”

The Muslim Waqf authority responsible for the Al Aqsa Mosque has encouraged believers to demonstrate opposite the metal detectors, but not to go through them. Amid pressure to defuse the tension, Israel in recent days had been holding quiet talks with Jordan, which is the official custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

Israeli media reported that security leaders were divided over what to do about the metal detectors, with the Israeli army and the Shin Bet supporting removing the equipment and the police recommending that it remain in place.

But after an emergency session hours before the prayers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet decided to keep the metal detectors.

“The metal detectors are a critical tool for ensuring the security of all visitors to the mount,’’ said Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan before the Cabinet meeting, according to the Israeli news outlet Maariv-NRG.

The police also imposed an age restriction for the first time in years, banning male worshippers under the age of 50 from participating — further inflaming accusations.

Abbas, who had cut short a visit to China ahead of Friday prayers, huddled with advisors and officials. At the end of the meeting, Abbas announced that he had decided to suspend contacts “on all levels” — implying that he had decided to suspend coordination between Palestinian security forces and the Israeli army in the West Bank as well. The cooperation is credited with keeping stability in the West Bank in recent years, but that could be upended by a freeze in security ties at a time of a wave in rioting.

Israeli officials said the attack in Halamish was carried out by a man named Omar Al Abed. The Israeli army published a picture of the blood-soaked kitchen floor in the home where the attack took place. Israeli news outlets reported that Al Abed carried out the attack during a dinner at the start of the Jewish sabbath.

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, called on the Security Council to condemn the attack.

“The international community must demand that Mahmoud Abbas and the PA put an end to these heinous attacks and stop their ongoing encouragement of violence,” Danon said.

The escalating crisis was touched off a week ago, after three Palestinian citizens of Israel ambushed two Israeli policemen with machine guns outside the Temple Mount and then were killed by police on the plaza. Israel closed the esplanade for two days and canceled Friday prayers for the first time in decades. When the holy site was reopened, police installed metal detectors outside two entrances to the plaza.

The violence Friday didn't result in the worst-case scenarios that Israeli security officials feared. Israel's army on Friday afternoon released two of five battalions put on alert a day before.

But the deaths, the high number of casualties and the breadth of the unrest increased the likelihood that violence will continue.

“Jerusalem has not witnessed such sights in more than a decade,” said Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, “and much more may come.’’

Staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske, and Special Correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed reporting

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UPDATES:

5:45 p.m: This article was updated with new information on the victims of the stabbings and the attacker.

3:05 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who announced a freeze in contacts with Israel.

12:15 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 8:00 a.m.

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