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Palestinian president accuses Israel of provoking a 'religious war'

Mahmoud Abbas blames escalating tensions in the region on Jewish zealots as Israeli troops kill a Palestinian protester

The Palestinian president on Tuesday accused Israel of provoking a "religious war" as new violence between the sides broke out in the West Bank, leaving a Palestinian man dead amid mounting concerns that the long-running conflict is entering a new and dangerous phase.

Mahmoud Abbas blamed the latest tensions on a series of visits by right-wing Jewish zealots to a Muslim holy site in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem. The visits to the site have helped fan strife in a region already on edge following Israel’s recent announcement that it would expand illegal settlements in East Jerusalem, last summer's bloody war in the Gaza Strip, and the earlier failure of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's Mideast peace efforts.

Abbas' remarks — at a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — came as Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian demonstrator in clashes in the West Bank on Tuesday.

The latest violence erupted near the city of Al-Khalil, or Hebron, where about 150 Palestinian demonstrators throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails were met with armed Israeli troops.

The Israeli military said attempts to disperse the demonstration using tear gas and rubber bullets failed, prompting soldiers to open fire with live ammunition.

In the shooting, Imad Jawabrah, a 22-year-old Palestinian resident of Al-Aroub refugee camp, was seriously injured and later died of gunshot wounds, according to hospital officials in the West Bank, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media.

The shooting occurred one day after a Palestinian from the West Bank city of Nablus stabbed and killed an Israeli soldier at a crowded Tel Aviv train station and another Palestinian stabbed three people at a bus stop next to an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, killing an Israeli woman and wounding two others.

Much of the recent unrest has stemmed from tensions surrounding the holy site in Jerusalem's Old City, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and Jews as the Temple Mount. It is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the gold-topped Dome of the Rock, the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. It is also revered as the location where the ancient Hebrew temples once stood and today is considered the most sacred place in Judaism.

Palestinians in East Jerusalem have carried out protests, alleging that Jewish zealots are trying to gain control of the site. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, to serve as the capital of their future state.

Palestinian fears have been heightened by an increased number of visits by Jewish hard-liners and calls by members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition for an expanded Jewish presence there. Palestinians also object to Israeli restrictions on Muslims entering the compound.

Complicating the situation, tensions also spiked following the killing of a Palestinian citizen of Israel by a policeman in the northern Israeli town of Kfar Kana on Saturday.

In an address to thousands of people at his West Bank headquarters, Abbas accused Israel of trying to divide the mosque compound, comparing it to the experience of a holy site in the West Bank that was split between Jewish and Muslim sides after an Israeli settler gunned down 29 Muslim worshippers there 20 years ago.

"Leaders of Israel make a mistake if they think they can divide the Al-Aqsa Mosque as they have done in Ibrahimi Mosque, and they will retreat from this one too," he said.

"By dividing the mosques, they are leading us to a religious war, and no one, Muslim or Christian, will accept that Jerusalem be theirs," Abbas said. "Jerusalem is our capital, and there will be no concessions."

Following Monday's deadly attacks in the West Bank and Tel Aviv, Israel said it was stepping up security in an attempt to forestall further incidents.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said several police units had been mobilized in major Israeli cities and were being deployed "in public places."

The Israeli military said it sent reinforcements to the West Bank, following what it called "new security assessments."

"I think these reinforcements will calm the situation down," said Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.

Israeli and Palestinian media debated on Tuesday whether the country was on the verge of a new Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, similar to those from the late 1980s and the first decade of the 2000s.

"This is the same soundtrack that we all remember from the days of the intifadas," wrote Alex Fishman in Tuesday's edition of Yediot Ahronot newspaper.

In a letter published Tuesday, Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouthi, who is currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for his alleged role in leading the second Intifada, urged armed resistance against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, according to a report by Palestinian news agency Ma’an News.

The letter said, “choosing global and armed resistance” was being “faithful to Arafat’s legacy, to his ideas, and his principles for which tens of thousands died as martyrs.”

Al Jazeera and news wires

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