JERUSALEM — Israel on Wednesday lifted its tight restrictions on Palestinian access to Jerusalem’s holiest shrine and called off an extended West Bank closure after days of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces.
Despite moving to end the lockdown, Israel still kept thousands of police officers on alert as an uneasy calm settled over the holy city.
The recent violence has taken place against a backdrop of deep Palestinian frustration over a yearlong standstill in peace talks and dovetailed with the worst U.S.-Israeli diplomatic feud in decades.
On Tuesday, the U.S. and Israel signalled they were trying to move beyond the crisis that erupted when Israel announced plans to build 1,600 apartments in disputed east Jerusalem during Vice-President Joe Biden’s visit last week. Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke by phone Tuesday night, Israeli officials said.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of the conversation, did not disclose the substance of the talk.
While there were no reports of new clashes in Jerusalem, sporadic violence broke out Wednesday in the West Bank. The most serious incident occurred in the northern city of Nablus, where dozens of Palestinian youths hurled rocks at Israeli security forces, some using slingshots and even a shovel to increase their range.
Israeli troops responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Medics said two Palestinians were wounded.
The recent protests have been fueled by the plans for more Jewish housing in east Jerusalem and unsubstantiated rumours that Jewish extremists are planning to seize the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Islam’s third-holiest shrine.
East Jerusalem, which saw the heaviest clashes in months after similar rumours surfaced earlier this week, was quiet Wednesday.
The Israelis said the decision to end the lockdown was based on intelligence reports.
Israel also rescinded its closure of the West Bank that had prevented virtually all Palestinians there from crossing into Israel. Thousands of Palestinians enter Israel each day for work, medical care and other services.
The hilltop where Al-Aqsa stands is also Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount, where the biblical Jewish temples once stood. The conflicting claims to the compound make the future of the holy city the most charged issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and immediately annexed the area. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their capital.
The U.S., which has been working for more than a year to get both sides negotiating again, has harshly criticized the latest Israeli construction plan. This week, Mideast envoy George Mitchell called off a trip to the area that had been expected to wrap up preparations for U.S.-mediated talks to begin.