JERUSALEM – Masked Palestinians whirling slingshots clashed with Israeli riot police in two Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem on Saturday after the shooting death of a teenage stone thrower. It was a sign of rising tensions on the eve of Palestinian commemorations of their uprooting during Israel's 1948 creation.
The possibility of escalation comes at a critical time for U.S. Mideast policy. President Barack Obama's envoy to the region, George Mitchell, resigned Friday, and the U.S. president may now have to retool the administration's incremental approach to peacemaking. Obama is to deliver a Mideast policy speech in the coming week.
Mitchell held the job for more than two years, but had little to show for it. Israeli-Palestinian talks resumed in September, but were quickly derailed by Israel's refusal to comply with an internationally mandated construction freeze in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, war-won territories Palestinians want for their state.
Israelis and Palestinians on Saturday praised Mitchell and blamed each other for the failure of his mission.
Palestinian officials argued that Mitchell was destined to fail because of what they said is a faulty U.S. premise — that Israelis and Palestinians are equals who can be nudged by a persistent mediator. As the occupier, Israel holds all the cards and only U.S. pressure on Israel will yield results, said Nabil Shaath, a veteran negotiator.
"Mitchell was good and skillful, but what could his personal skill have done as long as he didn't get the required support from the administration, to exert the required pressure?" Shaath said Saturday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Mitchell by phone Saturday.
Netanyahu expressed sorrow over Mitchell's decision to step down and "over the fact that the Palestinians refused to come to the talks that Mitchell worked to promote," according to a statement by Netanyahu's office. "They insisted on endless preconditions that hindered his work and, at the end of the process, joined Hamas."
Despite the deadlock, dramatic changes in the region in recent months, including democratic uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and a Palestinian unity deal between rivals Hamas and Fatah, have been shaping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Egyptian-brokered reconciliation deal restored President Mahmoud Abbas' position as the leader of all Palestinians, including those in Hamas-ruled Gaza, and strengthened his bid to sidestep a negotiated agreement with Israel and instead seek U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood in September.
Abbas told the Rome daily La Repubblica in an interview published Saturday that if Israel doesn't want to negotiate with a new Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas, "we'll go to the U.N. in September and ask if our people, which is again united, finally has the right to be a state."
With much at stake, it appears unlikely that Abbas' security forces will allow Sunday's commemorations to get out of hand.
The day marks the anniversary of what the Palestinians call the "nakba," Arabic for "catastrophe," referring to their displacement during the Mideast war over Israel's May 15, 1948, creation. At the time, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven out by Israeli troops, losing land and homes. The dispute over the fate of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, now numbering several million people, remains at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Several Facebook groups have called for launching a third uprising against Israel, starting Sunday, and urged supporters to march from Palestinian towns to Israel military checkpoints in the West Bank and around Jerusalem.
However, a new round of violence could undermine Abbas' diplomatic agenda, including his attempt to win U.N. recognition. Abbas' Fatah group is calling only for marches within the confines of Palestinian cities.
On Saturday, the main flashpoint was east Jerusalem, annexed by Israel after the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians as their capital.
A 17-year-old Palestinian, Milad Ayyash, was shot and critically wounded Friday during a clash near a Jewish settler enclave in east Jerusalem's Arab neighborhood of Silwan, according to a local activist, Fahri Abu Diab.
Abu Diab, citing witnesses, alleged that shots were fired from the rooftop of the Beit Yonathan settlement enclave toward the stone throwers. An official at Jerusalem's Mukassed Hospital said Ayyash arrived with a bullet wound in the abdomen and bled profusely.
Ayyash died of his injuries early Saturday, said Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben Ruby. He said the circumstances of his death are under investigation, but that it remains unclear who fired the shot.
Ben Ruby said police first learned of the incident when they were told that a Palestinian with a bullet wound had arrived at a Jerusalem hospital.
During Ayyash's funeral procession, Palestinians with scarves covering their faces broke away from hundreds of mourners, twirling slingshots to stone settler homes, passing cars and border police. Near the cemetery, dozens of Palestinians threw rocks and slabs of concrete at cars driver along the road below. Riot police fired tear gas, dispersing stone throwers who then would rejoin the procession, only to break away again later.
Clashes also erupted at the Qalandia crossing, a passage through the towering cement wall that rings most of Jerusalem as part of Israel's separation barrier with the West Bank. Dozens of Palestinian teens hurled stones, while some 150 Israeli soldiers took up positions on the rooftops of nearby building, occasionally firing tear gas.
Ben Ruby said police were increasing their presence in the streets ahead of the nakba commemoration.
In Washington, meanwhile, the Obama administration is focusing increasingly on the Middle East in coming days. The president will deliver a Mideast policy speech, expected on Thursday, followed by a visit by Netanyahu. On Tuesday, Obama hosts Jordan's King Abdullah II.
Associated Press writers Dalia Nammari and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah contributed reporting.