Situation in Jerusalem 'inflammatory' despite Gaza truce, warns Palestinian premier

Palestinians shout slogans outside the court in Jerusalem during a protest over Israel's planned evictions of Palestinian families from homes in the Silwan district, on May 26, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

RAMALLAH (BLOOMBERG) - The ceasefire in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip may be holding but the stand-off between Israel and the Palestinians in the contested city of Jerusalem remains tense, the Palestinian Prime Minister said, urging the international community to help end a vacuum in peacemaking.

"The problem is that while we do have a ceasefire in Gaza, the situation in Jerusalem continues to be very inflammatory," Mr Mohammed Shtayyeh said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

"The incursions in the Al Aqsa mosque continue as well as the threats of the ethnic cleansing of our people in Sheikh Jarrah and now the issue is taken to Silwan."

This month's 11-day war, the fourth major conflict between Gaza and Israel, erupted following weeks of tensions in Jerusalem over Israeli restrictions around the Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam, and efforts to evict Palestinians from long-time homes in a part of the city they want as capital of a future state.

Hamas rocket fire damaged homes and vehicles in the Jewish state, while Israel launched devastating air strikes that flattened buildings in the tiny coastal enclave. The fighting killed more than 250 Palestinians in Gaza, many of them civilians, and left 13 dead in Israel.

It came to an end on May 21 with an Egyptian-brokered truce after United States President Joe Biden urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to wind the fighting down.

Mr Shtayyeh said he planned to begin a tour of Arab countries, including Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and possibly Saudi Arabia, to drum up reconstruction aid. Egypt and Qatar have already committed US$500 million (S$662 million) each, he said.

Asked if the ceasefire would hold, Mr Mark Regev, senior adviser to Mr Netanyahu, said Israel has "no interest in another conflict with Gaza. But if they initiate fighting it will end on our terms, not on theirs".

Repeated ceasefires have succeeded in bringing calm to Gaza and Israel for years at a time but the underlying issues at the heart of the decades-old conflict - particularly the Palestinian struggle for statehood - were not addressed. That leaves the spectre of another round of fighting.

During his visit to the Middle East this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken committed more than US$100 million in new support to the Palestinians and reiterated a promise to replenish Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system but displayed little interest in convincing the sides to return to fully-fledged peace talks.

While reports in the Israeli media suggest that Egypt plans to host talks aimed at reaching a more permanent truce, Mr Shtayyeh said he expected the Cairo meetings to focus more on reconciling his West Bank-based Palestinian Authority with the Islamist Hamas group that rules Gaza Strip.

The two have been at odds since Hamas took control of the coastal territory following a brief war in 2006, a situation that's further stymied peace efforts with Israel.

"It's important for us to relaunch a Palestinian-Palestinian dialog so that we all reach an understanding to a situation where no one goes to war alone and no one goes to peace alone," Mr Shtayyeh said. "We have to be united in order for us to achieve our goals."

Palestinian PM Mohammed Shtayyeh urged the international community to help end a vacuum in peacemaking. PHOTO: REUTERS

Peacemaking between Israel and the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority broke down seven years ago. The Trump administration wholeheartedly embraced Israel and put forward an economy-focused plan for the Middle East that largely excluded the Palestinians.

With Mr Donald Trump's encouragement, four Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, agreed to normalise ties with Israel in deals that secured nothing for the Palestinians and were seen by them as a wasted opportunity.

Mr Shtayyeh praised the Biden administration's decision to resume contact with the Palestinian Authority and funding for the United Nations agency that helps Palestinian refugees - both suspended under Mr Trump. He said Mr Blinken's announcement that the US would reopen a consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem was an important signal.

"This is a nucleus of a future American embassy to Palestine. That is the real value of this issue," he said. "Also the United States did recognise the fact that there isn't yet a political initiative on the table and we also agreed with them that this political vacuum should not continue to be."

Mr Regev said that Israel was also interested in having "a more positive relationship", with the Palestinian Authority and "would like to see the peace process move forward".

Both sides blame each other for the breakdown.

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