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In East Jerusalem, Israeli-Palestinian tension nears boiling point

In East Jerusalem, Israeli-Palestinian tension nears boiling point
Israeli security forces stand guard as Palestinians perform Friday prayers in an East Jerusalem street Sept. 26. Israel restricted access to Al Aqsa mosque in a bid to stem violence. (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP/Getty Images)

The stones tell the story.

They litter alleyways and doorsteps, line roadways stained black by scorch marks from burning tires and firebombs, sit loose and at the ready atop crumbling rock walls.

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Hardly a day goes by without a stone-throwing clash between young Palestinians and Israeli security forces in some traditionally Arab corner of the holy city, skirmishes that often escalate to the point that police break out what are described as intense but nonlethal methods of crowd control: stun grenades, tear gas or a foul-smelling, retch-inducing liquid known as "skunk water."

"It's another intifada, really," said Jawad Siyam, an activist in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, referring to two sustained Palestinian uprisings against Israeli rule that began in 1987 and 2000. "And its center is here in Jerusalem."

Now, amid what many observers describe as the city's most tension-filled interlude in recent years, there is concern that this week's overlap of major religious observances for Muslims and Jews could push matters to the boiling point.

Friday evening, Muslims will begin celebrating Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, marking the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. At the same time, Jews will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Central to both commemorations are holy sites in Jerusalem's contested Old City.

Last week's Jewish New Year, which ended on Friday, offered a preview of what might lie in store. Young Muslim men seethed as police erected a cordon more than half a mile from the Old City, allowing only men older than 50 to reach Al Aqsa mosque, Islam's third-holiest site, for Friday midday prayers.

"They're strangling us," said shopkeeper Riyad Halak, whose store sits in an alleyway of the Old City close to an entryway to the mosque. "They want all Jerusalem to be completely empty of Palestinians."

Turmoil centered in East Jerusalem has a decades-long history, but the current season of unrest was galvanized by the torture and slaying in early July of a Palestinian teenager from the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat. Israeli authorities said the killing of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was carried out by Jewish extremists in reprisal for the abduction and fatal shootings of three Israeli yeshiva students in the West Bank.

Then came the 50-day conflict in the Gaza Strip, which trailed off with a cease-fire five weeks ago. But violence in East Jerusalem continued apace, rising again early last month after a Palestinian teen died of injuries suffered during a clash with police.

More than 750 Palestinians were arrested in Jerusalem over the summer, Israeli police said, at least one-third of them minors. Detentions surged amid rioting after Mohammed was snatched from in front of his family home and taken to a wooded area, where he was burned alive.

It has become commonplace to see children as young as 8 taking part in clashes and being picked up by police. Once detained, they are often held for days before being released into their parents' custody. A number of Palestinian adults interviewed in East Jerusalem acknowledged that they rarely intervene to prevent youngsters from taking to the streets, despite the danger.

"Why would I want to stop them?" one young mother asked angrily. "If I needed to, I would put the stones into their hands. But they find them for themselves."

East Jerusalem — annexed by Israel after the 1967 Middle East War, in a move that has never been internationally recognized — is home to nearly 300,000 Palestinians, who want it as their capital. But the demarcation is not a neat one.

Arab villages are squeezed between Jewish-dominated areas, skirting biblical sites such as the Mount of Olives. In the heart of many Arab neighborhoods, Jewish settlers have seized enclaves that they quickly turn into bristling mini-fortresses. Activists on Tuesday reported the takeover of seven more buildings in Silwan, where the settler movement has been particularly expansionist.

Israel's long-standing position is that Jerusalem is its capital and will never be divided. But Palestinians say it already is divided — along battle lines. Despite living cheek-by-jowl, the two sides lead largely parallel existences, avoiding mixing as much as they can.

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Now, amid mutual bitterness, the segregation is even more pronounced. Wherever possible, the two sides boycott each other's goods and services. Few Israeli Jews dare venture these days into Jerusalem's Arab neighborhood of Wadi Joz, known for its cheap car-repair shops. Police officers man barricades meant not only to keep Palestinians away from the Old City but to discourage Jews from entering areas where they might be attacked.

The city's much-vaunted light-rail line, which opened in 2011 amid hope that it would knit together Jewish and Arab areas, was attacked with stones and firebombs more than 80 times over the summer. An Israeli media outcry was raised last month after a devout Jewish family, using the popular navigational app Waze, drove into the middle of a stone-throwing riot in an Arab neighborhood while trying to make their way to the Old City.

The conflict has been marked by a hardening of antagonistic stances.

Israelis are unapologetic for the stringent security measures — and a Yom Kippur ban on vehicular traffic — that will prevent Palestinians from moving between their Jerusalem neighborhoods during the Eid holiday, in which family visits are a deep-rooted tradition. This Yom Kippur, four times as many police as usual will be deployed to keep Jewish and Muslim worshipers apart, the Haaretz newspaper reported Tuesday.

Each side steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the other's pain. In the course of a day in East Jerusalem, one Palestinian after another declared without solicitation that the killings of the three yeshiva students, which drew a national outpouring of grief in Israel, had been a hoax, despite exhaustive documentation of the crime.

One of those disbelievers is Ehsan Abu Khdeir, whose home in Shuafat is draped with a giant banner of his slain nephew, a doe-eyed, skinny boy, small for his age. "They want to take everything from us," he said. "So they invent excuses to do that, making up crimes that did not occur."

Yet he holds no grudge against the ultra-Orthodox Jews who own the commercial bakery where he works, Abu Khdeir said. After Mohammed was burned to death, he said, "they were kind, they offered me their condolences. They even wanted to come to our mourning tent."

He paused and shook his head.

"But of course, that would have been impossible."

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