Jews Removed From West Bank Shrine

JERUSALEM (AP) -- The Israeli military removed dozens of Jewish worshippers Sunday who clashed with Palestinians after illegally entering a biblical shrine in the West Bank that was recently torched by Palestinians.

The military said some 30 Jews descended upon the Joseph's Tomb compound in Nablus, a site revered by Jews as the tomb of the biblical figure Joseph. The area is under full Palestinian control but Jewish prayer is permitted there when coordinated with authorities. The military said Sunday's visit was not, and the worshippers had no permit. When they arrived they were confronted by Palestinians and a violent clash ensued. In consultation with Palestinian security forces, the military extracted the worshippers. One of them was lightly wounded and five were taken for police questioning.

On Friday, Palestinian assailants firebombed the West Bank compound, the first assault on a religious site. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said extremists were trying to turn the current conflict into a religious one.

Sunday's incident comes after another bloody day in which Palestinian assailants carried out five stabbing attacks against Israelis in Jerusalem and the West Bank, as a month-long outburst of violence showed no signs of abating.

Over the past month, eight Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks, most of them stabbings. In that time, 40 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, including 19 labeled by Israel as attackers, and the rest in clashes with Israeli troops.

The daily attacks have caused a sense of panic across Israel and raised fears that the region is on the cusp of a new round of heavy violence.

Israel has taken unprecedented steps in response to the attacks. It has deployed soldiers in Israeli cities and erected concrete barriers outside some Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, where most of the attackers have come from. Ordinary citizens have also increasingly taken up arms to protect themselves.

Palestinians said the roadblocks are collective punishment and ineffective in deterring attackers since those with bad intentions would try to reach Jewish neighborhoods through dirt roads anyway.

Most of the violence has taken place in Jerusalem, including a series of stabbings in the Old City, site of the major Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious sites. The typically bustling ancient cobblestone pathways were mostly empty Sunday, with armed Israeli border policemen stationed along almost every block. In the Muslim Quarter, at the corner of the Via Dolorosa where Christians say Jesus carried the cross, a pair of headscarfed female tourists from Turkey chatted amicably with an Israeli serviceman holding a rifle.

Among locals, the atmosphere was less jovial. Merchants said their businesses were suffering badly as customers have been wary of shopping.

"There is no one here," said Nabil Abu Sneina, a 44-year-old baker. "It will take a while for things to get back to normal but we've had enough of this."

The violence erupted a month ago over the Jewish New Year, fueled by rumors that Israel was plotting to take over Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site, a hilltop compound revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest shrine and a key national symbol for the Palestinians.

Israel has adamantly denied the allegations, saying it has no plans to change the status quo at the site, where Jews are allowed to visit but not pray.

It accuses the Palestinians of inciting to violence through the false claims. Palestinians say the violence is the result of nearly 50 years of Israeli occupation, more than two decades of failed peace efforts and a lack of hope for gaining independence anytime soon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that his government would start going after the finances of the Islamic Movement in Israel, a group he accuses of being the chief inciter of the recent violence.

Netanyahu said the government has been operating on all fronts to stop the wave of attacks and will now start tackling its source, and focusing on measures against the Islamic Movement and "particularly its financial sources."

"Israel is not the problem at the Temple Mount, Israel is the solution," he said at the start of his weekly Cabinet meeting. "We will protect the status quo, we are the only ones who are doing this and we will continue to do it responsibly and seriously."

At the Vatican, Pope Francis called for "much courage and much strength of spirit" to bring an end to violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

The pope told followers during the traditional Angelus blessing that he is following with great concern "the situation of strong tension and violence afflicting the Holy Land."

(KA)