With U.S.-brokered peace talks hanging by a thread, clashes erupted in East Jerusalem on Wednesday after a private Israeli security guard, working for Jewish residents of an Arab-dominated area, shot to death a Palestinian man during an early-morning altercation.
Hours later, following the funeral of the slain man, Samer Sarhan, 32, Palestinian youths in the restive Silwan neighborhood confronted Israeli police, throwing rocks, setting three cars on fire and injuring at least seven passersby, Israeli police said.
Rock-throwing attacks soon spread to other parts of East Jerusalem, including the Old City. At least five Palestinians were also injured, Palestinian authorities said.
The riots marked one of the most violent days in Jerusalem in recent months, with the sounds of police sirens and helicopters filling the air and black smoke rising in the sky.
In a rare move, Israeli riot police briefly raided the compound around the Al Aqsa mosque, an Islamic holy site in the Old City, to clear the area of young Palestinian men whom they feared would pelt Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall below. Israeli police typically do not enter the compound area, to avoid exacerbating religious tensions.
Palestinian leaders accused the Israeli government of provoking the violence as an attempt to deflect attention from the current impasse in peace talks, which could collapse as early as Sunday if Israel ends a partial moratorium on construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“This violent escalation by the Israeli occupying forces represents destructive measures that defeat the peace-building agenda,” said Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib. He blamed Wednesday’s violence on Israel’s policy of allowing “heavily armed settlers in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods.”
A leading Israeli human rights group said security in Palestinian neighborhoods should not be left in the hands of private security firms.
Israeli officials in turn accused Palestinian agitators in Silwan of ambushing the security guard, who they said shot in self-defense. Police denied that the violence was linked to the recent restart of peace talks.
“There’s no connection whatsoever,” said Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. “This was a local incident that should be put in proportion.”
Still, the violence is likely to heighten tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and increase pressure on leaders from both sides to resolve their dispute over Israel’s settlement construction.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to quit direct peace talks, which resumed less than a month ago, if Israel does not extend its moratorium beyond the Sept. 26 deadline.
But in a speech to Jewish leaders in the United States on Tuesday, Abbas indicated that he was unsure whether he would walk out.
“I cannot say I will leave the negotiations, but it will be very difficult to continue if [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu will announce that he will start building,” Abbas was quoted as saying, according to a transcript obtained by the Associated Press.
Other Palestinian negotiators, however, continued to warn that they would quit if construction resumed.
Netanyahu is under growing pressure from the U.S. and others to extend the moratorium. The international community considers such building on territory Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East War to be illegal.
So far, Netanyahu has refused to say what he will do, raising hopes among some that a last-minute compromise can be reached.