JERUSALEM • Palestinians set fire to a site revered by Jews in the West Bank overnight in an incident that threatened to further inflame two weeks of deadly unrest, as Israel dispatches soldiers starting tomorrow to bolster security.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, under pressure over recent comments that some have labelled incitement, quickly condemned the fire at the site in the northern city of Nablus known as Joseph's Tomb. Video shows what looked like an extensive blaze and the Israeli army has called it "a despicable act" of desecration.
Yesterday's arson came as Palestinians called for a "Friday of revolution" against Israel, and Jerusalem police barred men under 40 from attending the main weekly prayers at the flashpoint al-Aqsa mosque, seeking to keep young protesters away.
Israeli security forces have deployed massively in Jerusalem after two weeks of Palestinian attacks across Israel. Beginning tomorrow, some 300 soldiers will reinforce police, stretched thin by the unrest.
The last time soldiers deployed in such large numbers was in 2002, during the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, according to a security source. Yesterday, the Israeli army said its troops shot dead a Palestinian disguised as a news photographer who stabbed and wounded a soldier in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba.
The United Nations Security Council was set to hold an emergency meeting at Jordan's request yesterday to discuss the upsurge of violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday reiterated his willingness to meet Mr Abbas, while accusing him of inciting and encouraging violence.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who plans to travel to the region "in the coming days" to try to calm tempers, also warned the Palestinian leader not to incite violence.
Mr Abbas has called for peaceful protest, but had not explicitly condemned any attacks in the recent wave of unrest until yesterday's statement on the holy site.
He said the "illegal" arson "offends our culture and our religion and our morals", adding that a committee would investigate and the damage would be repaired.
The Palestinian leader has faced heavy criticism over a statement on Wednesday night in which he claimed a Palestinian youth had been executed. Israel has released photos and videos which they say show the 13-year-old, accused of taking part in two stabbing attacks, recovering in hospital.
Joseph's Tomb, inside a compound in the Palestinian refugee camp of Balata in Nablus, has been the scene of recurring violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Many Jews believe it to be the final resting place of the biblical Joseph, while Muslims believe that an Islamic cleric, Sheikh Yussef (Joseph) Dawiqat was buried there two centuries ago. The shrine is under Palestinian control and off-limits to Israelis except on escorted trips organised by the army.
Israel's military said about 100 rioters converged on the tomb yesterday and were pushed back by Palestinian security forces who arrived on site, but not before setting parts of it ablaze.
The latest spate of violence began on Oct 1, when a suspected Hamas cell murdered a Jewish settler couple in the West Bank. Those killings followed repeated clashes at East Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque compound last month between Israeli forces and Palestinian youth.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS