Ronen Zvulun /Reuters

US warning over ‘excessive force’ touches nerve in Israel

Israel has sanctioned the sealing off of East Jerusalem as part of tough measures that follow an increase in violence

Punitive measures introduced by Israel following several stabbing attacks by Palestinians have led Washington to warn its Middle East ally over “excessive use of force” — an accusation that drew a sharp response from Israeli politicians Thursday.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon accused the U.S. of “misreading” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called the remarks by a State Department official “foolish.”

But with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry due to travel to the Middle East soon to try to calm the violence, Israeli officials said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu swiftly ordered cabinet ministers to say no more publicly about the latest acrimony in a long-troubled relationship with the Obama administration.

Seven Israelis and 32 Palestinians have been killed in the past two weeks of bloodshed, including 10 assailants, as well as children and protesters shot in violent anti-Israeli demonstrations.

The violence has been partly triggered by Palestinians' anger over what they see as increased Jewish encroachment on Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is also revered by Jews as the site of two destroyed biblical Jewish temples.

At a daily press briefing on Wednesday, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Israel, which has set up roadblocks in Palestinian neighborhoods of Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem to try to stem attacks, has a right and responsibility to protect its citizens. Palestinian officials describe the roadblocks as collective punishment.

But he added: ‘Now, we have seen some — I wouldn’t call the checkpoints this — but we’ve certainly seen some reports of what many would consider excessive use of force.”

“Obviously, we don’t like to see that, and we want to see restrictions that are elevated in this time of violence to be as temporary as possible if they have to be enacted,” Kirby said, without citing specific incidents.

The comments touched a nerve in Israel, which has angrily denied Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' allegations that it was “executing our sons in cold blood.” 

Asked on Army Radio about the U.S. remarks, Yaalon said: “Are we exercising excessive force? If someone wields a knife and they kill him, is that excessive force? What are we talking about?”

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said police in the United States would act no differently in drawing their guns and using them if necessary.

“If people with knives were roaming the streets of New York and started stabbing people, they would not be asked to present their ID's, and the NYPD would draw their weapons,” she said on Israel Radio. “The U.S. administration can say whatever it wants — and we will do what is needed.”

Hours after the Israeli roadblocks went up on Wednesday, a Palestinian stabbed and wounded a 70-year-old woman outside Jerusalem's central bus station before a police officer shot him dead.

Prior to that incident, another Palestinian was also shot dead after he had attempted to stab paramilitary police at an entrance to Jerusalem's walled Old City, police said.

Israel has deployed 300 soldiers in Jerusalem and throughout the country to try to stop the most serious eruption of Palestinian street attacks since an uprising a decade ago. 

Other measures approved at an Israeli security cabinet meeting that finished in the early hours of Wednesday included the revocation of residency rights of Palestinians deemed to have committed attacks and an increase in demolition of their homes. The cabinet agreed that it would forbid new construction at those sites. Such tactics have often been threatened, but court challenges frequently hold up the process.

In addition, the cabinet approved an expansion of the national police, extra guards on public transport and the deployment of army units in sensitive areas along Israel’s steel and concrete separation barrier in the West Bank.

Human Rights Watch said the threatened lockdown of occupied East Jerusalem was “a recipe for harassment and abuse.”

“Locking down East Jerusalem neighborhoods will infringe upon the freedom of movement of all Palestinian residents rather than being a narrowly tailored response to a specific concern,” it said in a statement Wednesday.

Many Palestinians are frustrated with the failure of years of peace efforts to bring them statehood and end Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem.

The Palestinian group Hamas has been vocal in supporting the current attacks, and it called for “rallies of anger and confrontations” to be held in West Bank cities after Friday Muslim prayers.

Addressing Palestinians for the first time since the violence began, Abbas said in a recorded televised speech he supported a “peaceful and popular” struggle against Israel.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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