NAZARETH // Hundreds of Palestinians clashed with Israeli security forces across East Jerusalem yesterday in the worst rioting in years, after Hamas called for a "day of rage". Police fired rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas at protesters who hurled stones and set up barricades with rubbish bins and burning tyres.
In one neighbourhood, Israeli police officers disguised as protesters wrestled demonstrators to the ground and handcuffed them. Sixteen Palestinians were taken to hospital with broken bones, eye and stomach injuries, and dozens more were treated on the spot, according to the emergency services. Sixty Palestinians were arrested. Amid the violence, the Israeli government remained defiant in the face of mounting US anger at the diplomatic crisis created by Israel's approval of 1,600 homes for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem.
Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister said there was no reason to "get hysterical" about falling out with the United States, and that it was unreasonable to "forbid Jews from building in the east of the city or from buying land there". His remarks came as Peace Now, an Israeli peace group, brought to light the approval of a further 309 settler homes in East Jerusalem. In recent days Israeli activists have leaked data suggesting as many as 50,000 homes in East Jerusalem are in the planning pipeline.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, demanded yesterday that Israel prove its commitment to the peace process, though she brushed aside suggestions that US-Israel relations were in crisis. She called the bonds between the two countries "close" and "unshakeable". The White House spokesman Robert Gibbs yesterday reiterated the sentiment: "[The dispute] does not break the unbreakable bond that we have with the Israeli government and the Israeli people on their security."
However, in a sign of the deepening rift, George Mitchell, the US special peace envoy, cancelled his departure to Israel due on Monday, despite intense lobbying by Israel of the White House to reverse the decision. Mr Mitchell had been due to arrive in the region yesterday to kickstart so-called "proximity talks" between Israel and the Palestinians that have been plunged into crisis by Israel's construction plans for East Jerusalem.
Officially, the cancellation was blamed on "logistical problems". But according to reports in both the US and Israeli media, Mr Mitchell's visit will be put on hold until the White House has received Israeli agreement to key demands that were set out by Mrs Clinton in a phone conversation with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Friday. "We want to make sure that we have the commitment from both sides that, when he [Mr Mitchell] travels, we can make progress," a US state department spokesman, PJ Crowley, told reporters.
Israel was expected to provide an answer yesterday to the conditions, which are reported to include reversing its building plans in East Jerusalem, making a "substantial gesture" to the Palestinians, and declaring that all the core issues of the conflict, including Jerusalem, will be included in the forthcoming talks. The demands are said to have been issued by Barack Obama, the US president. Instead, Mr Mitchell will probably fly to Moscow on Friday for a meeting of the Quartet of Middle East peace brokers - the United States, the EU, the UN and Russia. Ban Ki-moon, the head of the UN, said Israeli construction in East Jerusalem would be on the agenda of the quartet's discussions.
Despite intensifying pressure, Mr Netanyahu and senior government ministers have given every appearance of treating the diplomatic stand-off as a passing spat. Israeli officials told the Haaretz newspaper yesterday that Mr Netanyahu had no plans to cancel a scheduled trip to the United States on Sunday to address the annual conference of Aipac, the most powerful pro-Israel lobby group in Washington.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has done little to ease the strains. On Sunday it reproached Mr Obama for what it called the administration's "escalated rhetoric" and called for the demands on Israel to be withdrawn. According to a report yesterday in The Washington Post, US officials regard Mr Netanyahu's resolution of the crisis a test of his commitment to better relations. "We have to have guarantees that these kinds of things will not happen again," a senior official was reported as saying.
However, in an interview with Israel Radio yesterday, Mr Lieberman suggested Israel was in no mood for concessions. "The challenge for the government is to withstand the pressures exerted upon it," he said. The Palestinians were "looking for excuses to threaten Israel". Mr Netanyahu has appeared to harden his stance since he apologised last week for the "unfortunate timing" of the announcement - during the visit of Joe Biden, the US vice president - that 1,600 homes would be built in Ramat Shlomo, a religious Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem.
The Israeli ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, was reported on Sunday to address concerned Israeli diplomats based in the United States that, as a result, Israel was facing the worst crisis in its relations with Washington in 35 years. But Mr Netanyahu remained defiant on Monday as he addressed a meeting of his Likud Party: "Building everywhere in Jerusalem will continue as it has over the past 42 years."
In a speech hours later, he reiterated that Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem - or neighbourhoods, as he called them - would remain part of Israel in any future peace talks with the Palestinians. "Forming these neighbourhoods did not harm the Arabs of East Jerusalem in any way and they were not built at their expense." East Jerusalem, which has been annexed to Israel in violation of international law, is home to 200,000 Jewish settlers.
The settlements are widely seen as destroying hopes for peace because the Palestinians demand East Jerusalem as the capital of any future state. Mr Netanyahu has received backing from all 30 ministers in his cabinet, including Ehud Barak, leader of the avowedly left-wing Labor Party. Mr Barak told his own faction only that the government "must work to ensure that the crisis will be forgotten and the talks will get back on track".
Sources close to Tzipi Livni, leader of the large opposition party, Kadima, told the daily Jerusalem Post newspaper yesterday that she too was behind Mr Netanyahu's stance on construction in East Jerusalem. In a minor indication of caution on the prime minister's part, however, he dissuaded hawks in his party from holding a meeting tomorrow at which they were due to advance a resolution publicly requiring Likud legislators to vote against extending the 10-month settlement freeze after it ends on September 25.
The freeze, part of an agreement with the United States made in November, was only partial, with East Jerusalem excluded from the deal and exemptions for thousands of buildings already under construction in the West Bank. The 309 new settler homes given approval in East Jerusalem will be located in Neve Yaakov. The announcement, Peace Now said, had been published on a government website last Friday but only publicised yesterday.