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Holiday clashes roil Jerusalem, Arab Party suspends itself from coalition


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JERUSALEM — Clashes around Jerusalem’s Old City during the rare confluence of Ramadan, Passover and Easter stoked fears of more widespread violence and threatened to fracture Israel’s fragile governing coalition Monday.

The coalition’s single Israeli Palestinian party announced it was temporarily suspending its participation in the alliance in protest of police actions against protesters at al-Aqsa Mosque in recent days and of escorting Jewish worshipers onto the site.

The party’s move is largely symbolic because the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, is not in session. But the coalition, which includes members from the right and left wings of Israeli politics, was already on the brink of collapse after a conservative lawmaker defected this month, leaving it without an outright majority. Political observers said the government will remain in a precarious position as it strains to keep calm amid the masses of Muslim, Jewish and Christian pilgrims pouring into the city’s ancient core.

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Clashes have sporadically marred holiday gatherings since Israeli police entered the mosque Friday morning in pursuit of Palestinian men who had thrown rocks and fireworks at nearby Jewish worshipers. Palestinian medics said police wounded more than 150 with sponge-tipped bullets and tear gas in the melee. Security forces briefly detained more than 400 people and restored order in time for tens of thousands of Palestinians to return for uneventful afternoon prayers.

But on Sunday, groups of young men tried to block several buses bringing Jewish visitors to the site, throwing rocks through windows and causing minor injuries to five passengers, according to police reports. Police fought with the crowd, injuring 17, the Palestinian Red Crescent said.

Security forces later escorted groups of Passover celebrants to the plaza around the mosque, which is known as the Temple Mount to Jews. The site, which is managed by a Jordanian Islamic trust but with access tightly controlled by Israel, is sacred to both religions and is often a flash point for violence.

Clashes on the plaza last year were a precursor to an 11-day war between Israel and the Hamas leadership of the nearby Gaza Strip. Hamas has warned that the police actions at the site in recent days could lead to renewed attacks from the enclave.

Officials are trying to get through the holiday tensions without a widening of the violence. Small clashes between police and Palestinian protesters were reported over the weekend in several mixed communities, including Nazareth. Two men were arrested for allegedly throwing rocks at police vehicles Sunday in the Arab-Israeli village of Umm al-Fahm.

On Monday, the Israeli military said it had downed a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip, according to Reuters, but no group claimed responsibility. The Associated Press noted that it was the first such launch in months and said that no damage or casualties were reported. Israel later targeted a “weapons manufacturing site” in the southern Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials are trying to fine-tune their security actions to keep order without provoking wider protests in Jerusalem and across Israel and the West Bank. They have set up new checkpoints for entry points to the Old City, checking IDs of Palestinians entering the area. But Israel has refrained from closing West Bank crossing points outright, allowing permitted Palestinians to enter Israel for work and worship.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday that the security forces would be given “free hand” to keep order. But he also emphasized the need to allow worshipers of all faiths to pray in Jerusalem during the holiday.

Police officials said they are working closely with the Jordanian Waqf, the trust that manages al-Aqsa, to keep it open for Ramadan prayers. But Jordan’s Foreign Ministry accused Israel of violating long-standing agreements by allowing Jewish worshipers onto the surrounding plaza under armed escort.

“Israel’s measures to change the status quo on the Mount are a dangerous escalation,” the ministry said in a statement. “Israel bears full responsibility for the consequences of the current escalation that is thwarting efforts invested to bring about calm.”

The governing Palestinian Authority in the West Bank also condemned the police incursion into the mosque, accusing the Israeli government of failing to maintain the site’s delicate status quo.

But the government has also been slammed by right-wing activists and politicians who accuse it of going easy on the protesters in the wake of a string of deadly attacks inside Israel in recent weeks. Palestinian gunmen killed five Jewish residents of Bnei Brak on March 30. Three Israelis were killed in a shooting rampage at a Tel Aviv cafe on April 9.

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Miri Regev, a member of the opposition Likud party, accused “this government of appeasers and grovelers” of “continuing to countenance terror attacks.”

The most impactful reaction to the government’s action has come from within, as the coalition’s sole Arab faction threatened to walk away entirely. Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Raam party, has been under intense pressure to pull out of the coalition over Israel’s police activities at al-Aqsa. One of his party members warned he would resign if security operations weren’t stopped.

Abbas, a pragmatic dentist who has used his party’s unprecedented participation in the coalition to push for improved services for Israel’s 2 million Palestinian citizens, condemned the police incursion at the mosque, calling it a “red line.” But he also reaffirmed his commitment to Israel’s experiment with a broad-based coalition government.

After reported consultations with Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Abbas stopped short of leaving the coalition entirely, an action that would have collapsed the government. Instead, he announced the compromise step of freezing his party’s participation for two weeks.

Political observers said Abbas was trying to buy time for the holiday security situation to ease with the end of Passover on April 22, Orthodox Easter celebrations on April 24 and Ramadan on May 1.

The Knesset will reconvene May 9.

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