Netanyahu rebuffs allies' criticism as Jerusalem violence swells

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a special cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on May 9, 2021.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a special cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on May 9, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JERUSALEM (BLOOMBERG) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed back against international criticism of government policies that have sparked weeks of violence in contested Jerusalem, condemning the unrest as the work of extremists and rejecting what he said is mounting pressure to halt Jewish construction in the city.

"We will not allow any extremist element to undermine the quiet in Jerusalem," Netanyahu said at a special cabinet meeting on Jerusalem Day, the reunification of the city in the 1967 Middle East war.

"We will uphold law and order, vigorously and responsibly. We will continue to safeguard freedom of worship for all faiths but we will not allow violent disturbances."

Addressing "our best friends", he added on Sunday (May 9), "Israel is our capital and we will continue to build there."

The holy city has has been seething with its worst unrest in years since the beginning of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan more than three weeks ago.

Israeli restrictions on gathering at a traditional Ramadan meeting place outside the Old City touched off the tensions, but after they were lifted, protests were rekindled by the threatened evictions of Palestinians from longtime homes in the eastern sector of the city that Israel captured in 1967.

Over the weekend, Palestinian medics said dozens of Palestinians were wounded in confrontations with security forces at one of Islam's holiest shrines, the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, and other parts of the city. Worshippers threw chairs and rocks, and police in riot gear fired water cannons and stun grenades.

Earlier, Israel had blocked busloads of Muslim pilgrims headed for prayers at the mosque on Saturday night, the holiest night of Ramadan, saying they had intelligence there were provocateurs on board.

After another night of clashes, the Israeli military reported rocket fire early on Sunday from Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. No one was reported injured. In response, Israeli aircraft struck a Hamas military post.

Tensions have also been stoked by the killing of a Palestinian teenager, Palestinian gunmen and a young Israeli in the West Bank, the postponement of Palestinian elections, and the resumed launching of incendiary balloons from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip at southern Israel.

Competing claims to east Jerusalem, home to Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy sites, lie at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the city is a frequent flashpoint for violence.

Despite the volatility, Israeli police have green-lit the annual Jerusalem Day parade. A court hearing Monday on some of the Sheikh Jarrah evictions was delayed.

The current frictions are expected to persist throughout the coming week as Jews and Muslims mark significant days on their calendars, beginning with a Jerusalem Day march that passes through the Old City and traditionally creates tensions.

Following it are the end of Ramadan, the Muslim Eid el-Fitr holiday, and the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, where tens of thousands of Jews traditionally converge on Jerusalem's Old City for prayer.

The violence has drawn denunciations from Arab allies, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which only recently normalised ties with Israel.

The US, said on Friday that it was "extremely concerned about the ongoing confrontations in Jerusalem", and called on Israeli and Palestinian officials "to act decisively to deescalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence".

Envoys from the Middle East Quartet of regional mediators said the had "serious concern" about the possible evictions inflaming an already tense environment and called upon Israeli authorities to "exercise restraint and to avoid measures that would further escalate the situation".

In a statement released on Sunday, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said, "Singapore is deeply concerned by the violence that has occurred in Jerusalem, including on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and in Sheikh Jarrah in recent days. We wish those who have been injured a full recovery.

"We strongly urge all sides to exercise restraint and bring a halt to all violence. All parties must refrain from any actions that would further escalate tensions."