Abbas accuses Israel of religious war

The Palestinian president accuses Israel of trying to divide the al-Aqsa Mosque

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel on Tuesday of leading the region toward a "religious war," saying frequent visits by Jewish worshippers to a site sacred to both Islam and Judaism are fueling clashes that have raised fears of a widespread outbreak of fighting.

The accusation drew a sharp response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said Abbas was making matters worse.

"Instead of calming tempers, he is inflaming them. Instead of educating his people for peace, Abu Mazen is educating them for terror attacks," Netanyahu said in a nationally televised address, referring to Abbas.

After meeting his Security Cabinet for several hours, Netanyahu also said security forces had been bolstered, and that he would begin imposing tough measures against violent demonstrators.

Much of the recent unrest has stemmed from tensions surrounding the holy site in Jerusalem's Old City known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

Visits by Jewish worshippers have raised concerns among Muslims that Israel is secretly trying to take over the site, fanning strife in a region already on edge following the collapse of U.S.-led peace talks, Israel's bloody war last summer in the Gaza Strip, and new Israeli settlement construction plans in east Jerusalem.

The tensions at the shrines have frequently boiled over into violent demonstrations and have provided the backdrop to a series of bloody attacks on Israelis by Palestinians.

In a fiery speech to thousands of supporters at his West Bank headquarters, Abbas said Israel was trying to divide the Jerusalem site, which includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque, much as it split a shared holy site in the West Bank city of Hebron after a Jewish settler gunned down 29 Muslim worshippers 29 years ago.

"Leaders of Israel are mistaken if they think they can divide the Al-Aqsa Mosque as they have done in Ibrahimi Mosque, and they will retreat from this one, too," Abbas said.

"By dividing the mosques, they are leading us to a religious war, and no one - Muslim or Christian - will accept that Jerusalem be theirs," Abbas said, urging Palestinians to defend the site. "Jerusalem is our capital, and there will be no concessions."

Abbas' speech marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Yasser Arafat, the longtime Palestinian leader and founder of the dominant Fatah faction.

He also used the occasion to attack the rival Hamas movement, accusing the Islamic militant group of undermining reconciliation efforts after a seven-year rift. The rivals agreed in June on the formation of a unity government, but Hamas, which overran Gaza in 2007, continues to control the territory.

Abbas accused Hamas of carrying out a series of bombings on the homes of Fatah leaders last week that led to the cancellation of what would have been the first Arafat memorial in Gaza since 2007. He also said the group was blocking postwar reconstruction efforts, leaving an estimated 100,000 people homeless.

"For whose interest are they blocking the reconstruction?" Abbas said. "The only losers are our people while you sit in your houses and hide out."

For Jews, the Temple Mount is revered as the site of the ancient Hebrew Temples and is the most sacred place in Judaism. The Noble Sanctuary, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the gold-topped Dome of the Rock, is the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

While Jews are allowed to visit the hilltop compound, they are not supposed to pray there under a longstanding arrangement.

A growing number of visits by Jewish worshippers who seek the right to pray and an expanded Jewish presence at the site have unnerved Palestinians. Last month, a Palestinian gunman shot and seriously wounded a Jewish activist who has campaigned for greater access to the site.

Netanyahu has said repeatedly he has no intention of upsetting the fragile arrangement that has governed the site for decades. But his promises have done little to soothe Palestinian fears.

The fatal shooting by police over the weekend of an Israeli Arab protester as he appeared to be walking away from the officer has heightened tensions.

On Tuesday, Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian demonstrator during clashes near Hebron. The Mezan Hospital identified the victim as Mohammed Jwabreh, a 21-year-old resident of the nearby al-Aroub refugee camp.

A series of Palestinian attacks, including two fatal stabbings Monday in Tel Aviv and in the West Bank, have raised fears of a new Palestinian "intifada," or uprising.

"These are the first signs of an intifada," said Shaul Mofaz, an Israeli lawmaker who served as the military chief of staff during the last Palestinian uprising a decade ago.

"For it to break out fully, it could take a day, or heaven forfend, five or six terrorist attacks. After that, you have it occurring everywhere," he told Israel Radio.

In his address, Netanyahu said Israel is "in the midst of a campaign of incitement and terror," and he vowed to use a "heavy hand" to halt the violence.

He said Israel would destroy the homes of attackers, impose increased punishments against demonstrators who throw stones and firebombs at security forces, and impose fines on the parents of young stone-throwers. He also vowed to outlaw groups believed to be behind the demonstrations.

Netanyahu said Abbas' comments earlier in the day were "irresponsible."

"Instead of telling the truth, he is disseminating lies. As if we intend on acting in any way to change the status of the holy places. That is a lie and falsehood," he said.

Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu's former national security adviser, said Israel is facing three separate threats that are coming together simultaneously: attacks by lone Palestinian assailants; Palestinian protests in Jerusalem; and unrest among Israel's Arab citizens.

He said the freelance nature of the attacks makes it extremely difficult to stop them. "This is a huge problem. There is no intelligence," he said.

But he said the level of violence is not close to the levels of past uprisings.

"I don't think it deserves to be called an intifada. I don't think it is equivalent to what we had in the past," he said.


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