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Updated: March 16, 2010 16:10 IST

US envoy cancels Middle East trip amid US-Israel feud

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U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell, right, shakes hands with Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on Monday.
U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell, right, shakes hands with Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on Monday.

A U.S. envoy’s postponement of his Mideast trip appeared on Tuesday to deepen one of the worst U.S.—Israeli feuds in memory - even as Israel’s foreign minister signalled his government had no intention of curtailing the contentious construction at the heart of the row.

Dozens of masked Palestinians also hurled rocks at police and set tires ablaze across the holy city’s volatile eastern sector, as the deployment of thousands of Israeli security personnel entered its fifth day.

The diplomatic crisis erupted last week after Israel announced during a visit by Vice-President Joe Biden, that it would build 1,600 apartments for Jews in disputed east Jerusalem, the sector of the holy city that the Palestinians claim for a future capital.

The announcement enraged Palestinians, who have threatened to bow out of U.S.—brokered peace talks that were supposed to have begun in the coming days. The Obama administration, fuming over what it called the “insulting” Israeli conduct, demanded that Israel calls off the contentious project.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, told Israel Radio that demands to halt Israeli construction there “are unreasonable as far as we are concerned.” And he predicted that the diplomatic row with the U.S. would blow over, saying neither side had an interest in escalation.

But Washington notified Israel early Tuesday that envoy George Mitchell had put off his trip. The visit will be rescheduled at an undetermined time, officials on both sides said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has apologized for the timing of the project’s approval, but he has not said it would be cancelled. On Monday, backed by his hawkish coalition, he defended four decades of Jewish construction in east Jerusalem and said it “in no way” hurts Palestinians.

The feud is feeding already high tensions in east Jerusalem, where Jews and Palestinians live together uneasily. Some 3,000 Israeli police officers were deployed in the east Jerusalem area on Tuesday, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, said.

Early Tuesday, masked Palestinians hurled rocks at Israeli police and burned tires in multiple areas. Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben—Ruby said police fired stun grenades to disperse dozens of protesters at one site, and that village elders helped to end protests at another. No injuries were reported in those disturbances.

At another site, rioters on a road strewn with rocks, tires and a charred garbage bin were dismantling a public bus stop. Police said 15 Palestinians have been arrested so far.

Palestinian access to a disputed hilltop shrine holy to both Jews and Muslims remained limited to men 50 and over, Mr. Rosenfeld said.

Palestinians are protesting the rededication of a historic synagogue in the Jewish quarter of the Old City, amid rumours of plans by Jewish extremists to take control over a hilltop complex at the crux of the Israeli—Palestinian conflict.

The rededication has stoked periodically recurring rumours that Jewish extremists are planning to take over the shrine known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al—Sharif, home to the Al—Aqsa mosque complex.

Temple Mount, where the biblical Jewish temples stood, is Judaism’s holiest site. The Al—Aqsa complex is Islam’s third—holiest shrine.

Palestinians summoned by their leaders to defend the compound run afoul of Israeli checkpoints limiting access to the site, creating an environment for clashes.

Palestinians, who number about 250,000 in east Jerusalem, see the building of new settlements and the presence of some 180,000 Jews there as a grave challenge to their claims to the territory.

Jerusalem is the most explosive issue in the Israel—Palestinian conflict. At the emotional and religious centre of the dispute is Jerusalem’s Old City, with shrines holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem after capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. Most Israelis accept the Jewish neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem as part of Israel, and previous peace proposals have allowed them to remain in Israeli hands.

But the international community does not recognize the annexation or distinguish the Jewish neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem as different from West Bank settlements, seen internationally as illegal.

The rift has presented Mr. Netanyahu with a predicament. If he doesn’t make gestures toward the U.S. and the Palestinians on east Jerusalem, he will likely further antagonize Israel’s most important ally. But Mr. Netanyahu, who historically has taken a hard line against territorial concessions to the Palestinians, could see his hawkish governing coalition crumble if he compromises on Jerusalem.

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