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Palestinian Unrest Erupts Amid U.S.-Israel Row

Palestinian youths confront Israeli soldiers during clashes in East Jerusalem on March 16.
Dozens of Palestinians have clashed with police in mainly Arab east Jerusalem amid heightened tension in the Holy City, where Israeli authorities have vowed to continue building homes for Jewish settlers.

Police said some 3,000 Israeli police officers were deployed in the area after the Hamas militant group called for a "day of rage" in response to Israel's dedication of a rebuilt synagogue in the Old City.

The unrest came as U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell delayed a visit to the region amid a deepening diplomatic row between Israel and the United States.

U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley voiced concern about the tensions and appealed for calm.

"We are urging all parties to act responsibly and do whatever is necessary to remain calm," Crowley said. "We're deeply disturbed by statements made by several Palestinian officials mischaracterizing the event in question, which can only serve to heighten the tensions that we see, and we call upon Palestinian officials to put an end to such incitement."

Tensions have increased after Israel announced last week that that it would build 1,600 apartments for Jews in east Jerusalem, the sector of the city that the Palestinians claim for a future capital.

The announcement, made during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, has thrown into doubt the revival of U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and triggered a deepening feud between the United States and Israel.

U.S.-Israeli Row

U.S. officials have condemned as an "insult" to Washington the Israeli announcement and demanded that Israel call off the contentious project.

On March 15, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was quoted by Israeli media as saying ties between the two allies were at their lowest point for 35 years due to the housing issue.

Crowley said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made specific demands of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about the project, and about showing Israeli commitment to U.S.-mediated indirect peace talks with the Palestinians. He said Washington was still waiting for an answer.

"When she outlined for the prime minister our specific concerns, she asked for a formal response by the Israeli government," Crowley said, "and we await that response."

Netanyahu has apologized for the timing of the project's approval. But he stood by Israel's settlements policy, saying there can be "no curbs" on Jewish building in Jerusalem.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman today called demands to halt Israeli construction in east Jerusalem "unreasonable." He also predicted that the diplomatic row with Washington would blow over, saying neither side had an interest in escalation.

Mitchell had been scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem today, but Washington has notified Israel that Mitchell had put off his trip. Officials on both sides said the trip will be rescheduled at an undetermined time.

On March 18-19 in Moscow, however, Clinton is to meet the Middle East Quartet with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and Quartet representative Tony Blair are also to attend the talks.

Street Confrontations

The reopening of the twice-destroyed Hurva synagogue close to the Al-Aqsa Mosque -- Islam's third holiest site -- late on March 15 also inflamed tension, with the militant group Hamas declaring today a "day of rage" against the move.

Masked Palestinians hurled rocks at Israeli police and burned tires across the city's volatile eastern sector, as the deployment of thousands of Israeli security personnel entered its fifth day.

Police responded with tear gas and fired rubber bullets, and said two officers were wounded and 15 Palestinians arrested so far. Medical sources were quoted as saying at least six Palestinians were taken to hospital.

Crowds of protesters also took to the streets across the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, chanting slogans such as: "With our blood, with our souls, we sacrifice for you, Jerusalem."

Hatem Abdel Qader, Jerusalem affairs spokesman for the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, said the synagogue will be “a prelude to violence and religious fanaticism and extremism."

Israel annexed east Jerusalem after capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war, a move that has not been recognized by the international community.

compiled from agency reports