US' John Kerry mounts push to cool Jerusalem tempers

US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his residence in Amman on Nov 13, 2014 to discuss the upsurge in violence in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Kerry arrived in Jordan late on Nov 12 for talks
US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his residence in Amman on Nov 13, 2014 to discuss the upsurge in violence in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Kerry arrived in Jordan late on Nov 12 for talks with the Palestinian leader on easing regional tensions, after Israel approved new settler homes in east Jerusalem despite mounting unrest. -- PHOTO: AFP

AMMAN (AFP) - Top US diplomat John Kerry mounted a diplomatic push on Thursday to calm surging tensions in Jerusalem through meetings in Jordan with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Hours after the secretary of state held talks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, officials announced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would also join the diplomatic flurry.

"They will focus on ways to restore calm and de-escalate tensions in Jerusalem," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said of the planned three-way talks between Kerry, Netanyahu and Jordan's king.

It came hours after fresh clashes broke out in east Jerusalem where Israeli police fired tear gas, percussion bombs and rubber bullets to disperse Palestinian demonstrators.

Months-long unrest in annexed east Jerusalem has in recent days spread to the occupied West Bank and Arab communities across Israel, raising fears of a new Palestinian uprising.

On Wednesday, Israel approved plans for another 200 settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem - a move sharply criticised by Washington.

Kerry and a sombre-looking Abbas embraced and had a brief whispered exchange as they met at the Palestinian leader's hillside villa in Amman where the US and Palestinian flags hung in front of a large night-time photo of Jerusalem's flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque.

Much of the unrest in Jerusalem has been fuelled by Israeli moves to step up settlement activity in the city's eastern sector and by religious tensions at the Al-Aqsa compound, a site holy to both Muslims and Jews.

Earlier, a tense confrontation erupted in the city's Issawiya neighbourhood as about 100 residents, including schoolchildren, tried to block a main road after police closed off several neighbourhood entrances with concrete blocks.

A local activist denounced the blocks as "collective punishment" against Palestinians in Jerusalem.

The Palestinians have also been infuriated by a far-right Jewish campaign for prayer rights at the Al-Aqsa compound, although Israel insists it has no plans to change the decades-old status quo.

Israel's Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said the authorities were on alert for more unrest, after several attacks in recent weeks by Palestinians wielding knives or ploughing cars into pedestrians.

"I believe there will still be terror attacks and other incidents in the near future," he said.


Abbas' spokesman said ahead of the meeting that the Palestinian leader was expected to tell Kerry of his growing concerns over Israel's actions, particularly in Jerusalem.

"The Palestinian position will be made crystal clear: the Israeli violations are a red line and cannot be tolerated - especially with the tension and Israeli escalation in Al-Aqsa and Jerusalem," Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.

Kerry also met Jordan's King Abdullah II who called for Israel "to put an end to its unilateral action and repeated attacks against holy sites in Jerusalem, especially those targeting the Al-Aqsa mosque compound," a palace statement said.

The King said there was "no alternative to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state", with east Jerusalem as its capital, in order to achieve peace.

Jordan, which has custodial rights at Al-Aqsa, last week recalled its ambassador to Israel after police clashed with Palestinians inside the mosque compound.

In a letter to the UN Security Council sent on Wednesday, Palestinian ambassador Riyad Mansour demanded international intervention over Al-Aqsa, warning that tensions could "spiral out of control".

In a move likely to further heighten tensions around the Al-Aqsa compound, Aharonovitch said late Wednesday that he would reinstall metal detectors at the entrances along with new facial-recognition technology.

"We'll increase the supervision of people entering the compound, both Jews and Muslims," he said.


But Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Islamic Waqf which runs the compound, rejected the idea.

"This is unacceptable to all Muslims. It cannot be installed," he told AFP.

The US State Department sharply condemned Israel's announcement of 200 new homes in the east Jerusalem settlement neighbourhood of Ramot.

"We are deeply concerned by this decision, particularly given the tense situation in Jerusalem," said spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon demanded both sides do everything possible "to avoid further exacerbating an already tense environment".

On Wednesday, suspected Jewish extremists staged a pre-dawn arson attack on a West Bank mosque two days after Palestinian knife attacks killed a settler in the southern West Bank and an Israeli soldier in Tel Aviv.

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