An uneasy calm appeared to be in place over Jerusalem on Friday despite scattered attacks by individuals on both sides of the conflict and a warning from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that political turmoil could become a “religious” war.
Overnight Thursday, a series of assaults were reported across Israel and the West Bank. This was followed by clashes between Israeli security forces and protesters that left several Palestinians wounded — some the victim of what appeared to be live or rubber-coated steel bullets, sources told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile on Friday two Israeli settlers were attacked at the Mount of Olives, next to Jerusalem’s Old City. One was stabbed in the back while the other was hit by an iron rod, Israeli police said. Both required hospital treatment, but were admitted with injuries not thought to be life threatening.
The attacks followed another week of tit-for-tat violence during which a Palestinian attack on worshippers at a Jerusalem synagogue left seven dead including the two assailants — the deadliest attack on Israeli civilians in the city since 2008.
But Friday’s violence was seen to be lower level than some had feared. Israeli police allowed young Muslims to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque on Friday — a break with previous Friday restrictions that barred entry to those under the age of 60.
Officials said 45,000 people attended Friday prayers at the mosque with no serious incident reported.
Nonetheless, tensions continue to be high.
Strains have been in evident since the end of Israel's bombardment of Gaza over the summer, which left more than 2,000 Palestinians and nearly 70 Israelis dead.
Since then, outright conflict has been replaced by a series of reprisal attacks by individuals on both sides. Meanwhile, a security crackdown by Israel on the occupied territories, continued settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and restrictions on the Al-Aqsa mosque within the city’s holy esplanade — a perpetual flash point and sacred site for both Muslims and Jews — has inflamed tensions, resulting in clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces.
Speaking in Ramallah on Friday, Abbas warned against political strife being ramped up into to religious warfare.
“This a crucial time, there’s terrorism, religious conflict and violence. It is us who pay the price the blood of our children,” Abbas said, adding: “I am warning against turning a political conflict into a religious one. Let’s talk about politics not religion.”
The warning coincided with a series of other incidents keeping Israel and the occupied territories on edge.
In the northern Israeli city of Acre on Friday, unknown assailants reportedly threw acid on the car of an Imam who had called for tolerance along with Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders Wednesday at the Jerusalem synagogue where the five Israelis were murdered.
Sheikh Sami Assi, imam of Al-Jazaar mosque in Acre downplayed the attack on his car. Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted the imam as saying: “The residents of Acre, Jews and Arabs alike, have proven they know how to respect one another and to coexist with mutual respect and understanding.”
Also on Friday, Israel arrested four Palestinian suspects over an alleged plan to kill right-wing foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman with an anti-tank rocket.
Meanwhile, there were reports that residents of Jerusalem were afraid to leave their house given the city’s ongoing potential for violence.
West Jerusalem is largely populated by Israelis whereas East Jerusalem is mostly Arab. People on both sides are afraid of crossing into the other’s territory, local media has reported.
“We’re trying not to go alone into Israeli areas, especially at night. We’ll go in groups if necessary, but we won’t let our children go,” East Jerusalem bookshop owner Imad Muna said accoring to local Maan news, adding that he felt he was a target because he was Palestinian.
West Jerusalem resident Ayelet Blass told Agence-France Press that even Israelis hardened to the conflict are scared: “The randomness is scary. I’m afraid to walk around — God knows what’s going to happen, even in the middle of the day.”
The sporadic nature of the violence has been a feature of recent attacks. On Thursday night, four Israeli settlers living in the West Bank attacked a Palestinian taxi driver in West Jerusalem with pepper spray, according to Israeli police.
For other drivers, the increased tensions has resulted in lose of business and some have reportedly stopped working out of fear of attack. Riyad Jatt of Silwan, in East Jerusalem, told Haaretz that when he stopped to pick up two female passengers on Thursday, they asked him if he was Jewish or Arab.
“When I told them I was an Arab they didn’t get in,” Jatt said, adding that after 20 such similar incidents he stopped keeping count. Palestinians make up at least half of the city’s taxi drivers, but have told local media that working has become humiliating, if not dangerous.
Meanwhile, at least 27 Palestinian bus drivers for Israeli company Egged have quit and dozens are on strike after a Palestinian driver was found hanged in his vehicle. The drivers said they believe Israeli settlers murdered the man, Haaretz reported.
Police have insisted that the bus driver took his own life. But Palestinian pathologist Saber al-Aloul disagreed, saying bruises on the man’s body and other evidence pointed to foul play.
Al-Aloul told Maan news that he had received an order from Israeli authorities to go to the Russian Compound detention center for questioning on Sunday. The victim’s brother Osama al-Ramouni called the Israeli version of the death a lie, saying marks on his brother’s body suggested torture, Maan reported.
“My brother had children and was a happy man. It is impossible that the killed himself,” al-Ramouni said.
The incident has left other drivers jittery, local media has reported.
“People are frightened,” said Ala Jagal, a fellow driver who quit. “They have children; some of their wives tore up their clothes so they couldn’t go to work.”
Egged spokesman Ron Ratner said, “In the last few days a handful of drivers from the eastern part of the city have chosen to stop working at Egged for personal reasons.”
With wire services