JERUSALEM – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will make a surprise visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories on Tuesday, the Palestinian foreign minister said, in a high-profile gambit to bring an end to the monthlong wave of violence that has plagued the region.
The visit comes amid unrest that erupted in Jerusalem a month ago over tensions surrounding a Jerusalem holy site sacred to Jews and Muslims. It soon spread to Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem and then to the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. The spate of daily attacks have caused panic across Israel and raised fears that the region is on the cusp of a new round of heavy violence.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Malki told Palestinian radio that Ban, who is currently in Europe, will arrive later Tuesday and meet with both sides. Additional details of the visit were not immediately available.
Israel has yet to officially confirm the visit, but reports said the country's new ambassador the United Nations, Danny Danon, was on his way home to prepare for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Prior to the visit, Ban issued a video message late Monday calling for calm on both sides.
He said he understood the Palestinian frustration but that violence would only harm their legitimate aspirations.
"I know your hopes for peace have been dashed countless times. You are angry at the continued occupation and expansion of settlements," he said. "I am not asking you to be passive, but you must put down the weapons of despair."
Addressing Israelis, he said he understood their concerns and fears due to the security deterioration, but added there was no military solution to the situation.
"When children are afraid to go to school, when anyone on the street is a potential victim, security is rightly your immediate priority," he said. "But walls, checkpoints, harsh responses by the security forces and house demolitions cannot sustain the peace and safety that you need and must have."
Over the past month, nine Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks, most of them stabbings. In that time, 41 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, including 20 labeled by Israel as attackers, and the rest in clashes with Israeli troops. An Eritrean migrant died after being shot and beaten by a mob that mistakenly believed he was a Palestinian attacker.
The outbreak was fueled by rumors that Israel was plotting to take over Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site, a hilltop compound revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest shrine and a key national symbol for the Palestinians. Israel has adamantly denied the allegations, saying it has no plans to change the status quo at the site, where Jews are allowed to visit but not pray. It accuses the Palestinians of inciting to violence through the false claims.
Israel has struggled to contain the attacks by Palestinian assailants. Authorities have blocked roads and placed checkpoints at the entrances of Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. Other security measures include ID checks and requiring some Palestinian residents to lift their shirts and roll up pant legs as they exit their neighborhoods to prove they are not carrying knives. Soldiers have been deployed in Jerusalem and cities across Israel.
Palestinians say the violence stems from anger over the Jerusalem holy site and nearly 50 years of occupation, as well as a lack of hope.
On Tuesday, the Israeli military arrested top Hamas official Hassan Yousef in the West Bank, saying he had been "actively instigating and inciting terrorism" by encouraging attacks against Israelis.
"Hamas' leaders cannot expect to propagate violence and terror from the comfort of their living rooms and pulpits of their mosques," said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman.
Yousef is a co-founder of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules the Gaza Strip. His son, Mosab, spied for Israel between 1997 and 2007 and wrote a book about his experiences.
Also Tuesday, the Israeli military demolished the home of a Palestinian who killed an Israeli woman last year. Maher Hashlamoun rammed his car into 25-year-old Dalia Lemkus in the West Bank last year and stabbed her several times. Hashlamon was shot and killed.
His wife told Palestinian radio that soldiers evacuated their three-story building and demolished the third floor apartment where her family lived.
The measure is one of several steps the Israeli government has taken recently to counter the violence.
Lerner said the demolition "sends a clear message that there is a personal price to pay when you are involved in terror."