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US says it’s ‘critical’ for all sides to restore calm in Jerusalem

State Department spokesperson also raises issue of evictions of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem neighborhood, says US ‘deeply concerned’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Police clash with protesters demonstrating against the pending eviction of several Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on May 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police clash with protesters demonstrating against the pending eviction of several Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on May 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The US urged all sides to act with restraint in Jerusalem, saying it was “critical” to restore calm amid several days of clashes in East Jerusalem that spread to the flashpoint Temple Mount on Friday.

“As we head into a sensitive period in the days ahead, it will be critical for all sides to ensure calm and act responsibly to deescalate tensions and avoid confrontation,” Jalina Porter, a State Department spokesperson said during a telephone briefing. She avoided specifically blaming either side.

Israeli police burst into the Temple Mount compound on Friday evening after Palestinians threw rocks and bottles at officers, as widespread clashes in Jerusalem spread to the holy site after prayers were held there on the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Video from the scene showed pitched battles, with Palestinians throwing chairs, shoes, rocks and bottles and police responding with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets. At least six officers were wounded, police said.

Israeli security forces deploy during clashes with Palestinian protesters at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem, on May 7, 2021. (Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, 53 Palestinians were wounded in clashes in Jerusalem on Friday night, mostly around the Temple Mount and by Damascus Gate. Some 23 Palestinians were hospitalized, including one who was shot in the head with a rubber-coated metal bullet.

The Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem has been one of the main flashpoints of conflict. The holiest site in Judaism, the site of the biblical temples, is also home to the Muslim holy sites of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock shrine.

There are growing fears that tensions in Jerusalem could come to a head on Saturday night.

Saturday night is “Laylat al-Qadr” or the “Night of Destiny,” the most sacred in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Worshippers will gather for intense nighttime prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Sunday night is the start of Jerusalem Day, a national holiday in which Israel celebrates the unification of Jerusalem and religious nationalists hold parades and other celebrations in the city.

Palestinian protesters look on during clashes with Israeli security forces at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem, on May 7, 2021. (Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Tensions in Jerusalem have been fueled by the pending eviction of four Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah as part of a long legal battle with right-wing Jewish Israelis trying to acquire property in the East Jerusalem neighborhood.

Porter also expressed concern over the evictions, saying: “We are deeply concerned about the potential eviction of Palestinian families in the Silwan neighborhood and in Sheikh Jarrah, many of whom have lived in their homes for generations.”

Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of a far-right party, stands with police guarding a Palestinian home claimed by right-wing Jews in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, May 6, 2021 (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The comments on Sheikh Jarrah were the first made by a US official specifically addressing efforts by ultra-nationalist Jewish groups to oust dozens of Palestinians from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood. Over half a dozen House Democrats have also issued statements in recent days condemning the Israeli policy as well as the police crackdown on protests against it.

The violence came amid political upheaval in Israel after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government and an ideologically diverse band of rivals seek to succeed in his stead in order to avoid bounding the country toward its fifth election in less than two years.

Israel’s Supreme Court will hold a discussion next Monday on an appeal by four Palestinian families — more than 70 people — against their evictions in Sheikh Jarrah.

According to Ir Amim, a left-wing human rights group focusing on Jerusalem, around 200 families in East Jerusalem are under similar threat, with cases slowly moving through administrative bodies and Israeli courts. Around 70 of those families live in Sheikh Jarrah.

The evictions are based in part on a 1970 Israeli law that allows Jews to reclaim East Jerusalem land owned by Jews before 1948. No similar law exists for Palestinians who lost their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war and fled to what was then Jordanian-controlled territory. In fact, the Knesset passed a law in 1950 barring Palestinians from reclaiming property in East Jerusalem from before 1948.

Israeli security forces clash with protesters in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on May 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

For its part, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement Friday accusing the Palestinian Authority of “presenting a real estate dispute between private parties, as a nationalistic cause, in order to incite violence in Jerusalem,” adding that Ramallah would bear responsibility for any violence that ensued.

Sheikh Jarrah has long been a focal point of Jewish-Arab tensions. A small Jewish community lived in the area before 1948, when East Jerusalem fell under Jordanian control. Home to a shrine revered as the final resting place of Shimon Hatzadik, a third-century BCE high priest also known as Simeon the Just, the neighborhood is often visited by Jewish pilgrims.

Recent days have seen police confront mainly Palestinian protesters demonstrating in solidarity with the families in Sheikh Jarrah. The most violent evening of clashes came Thursday night at the site of a tent pitched by far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir outside one of the neighborhood’s few Jewish-owned homes. The Religious Zionism lawmaker, who entered the Knesset thanks to a merger of ultra-nationalist parties orchestrated by Netanyahu, said he would use the space as an office until police did more to protect the areas Jewish residents.

Ben Gvir agreed to pack up on Friday after police informed him that they would place reinforcements at the site. Protests still took place in Sheikh Jarrah on Friday and two lawmakers from the majority-Arab Joint List party were in attendance along with hundreds of others. Police eventually scattered the demonstrators using riot dispersal measures, claiming the protesters had instigated a riot.

Palestinians wave flags of the Hamas terror group after afternoon prayers for the last Friday of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, May 7, 2021. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Also on Friday, three Palestinians opened fire at Border Police near a military base. Israeli forces shot two of the assailants dead and critically wounded the third. The assailants had been on a bus of Palestinians from the West Bank seeking to reach Jerusalem for Friday prayers.

Tensions in the capital, specifically around the Old City, were already high after police prevented people from congregating outside Damascus Gate at the start of Ramadan, which Arabs said was an inflammatory move that obstructed a long-held tradition of gathering at the site during the Muslim holy month. Authorities later canceled the policy amid mass protests.

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