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Violence in East Jerusalem Clouds Peace Efforts

Crowds of Palestinian youths violently rampaged in east Jerusalem Tuesday following the shooting death of a local man, clouding fragile peace efforts even as the Palestinian president signaled he may back away from threats to quit peace talks if Israel resumes West Bank settlement construction.

Protesters stoned buses, overturned cars and faced down Israeli riot police at the holy city's most sensitive religious sites, underscoring fears that new fighting could break out if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to extend the settlement freeze, which expires Sunday.

"I cannot say I will leave the negotiations, but it's very difficult for me to resume talks if Prime Minister Netanyahu declares that he will continue his (settlement) activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem," Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said in an address to U.S. Jewish leaders late Tuesday in New York, according to a transcript of the event obtained by The Associated Press.

The Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations later said Abbas' comments had been misconstrued and that Abbas was still ready to walk away.

The violence was a vivid illustration of how sensitive - and combustible - the situation in east Jerusalem can be. The competing Israeli and Palestinian claims to the area, home to key Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, have frequently escalated into clashes and intense fighting.

Wednesday's clashes erupted in the Silwan neighborhood shortly after a 32-year-old Palestinian man was killed by a private Israeli security guard watching over Jewish families in the area. About 70 ultranationalist Jewish families live in Silwan, amid some 50,000 Palestinian residents.

Israeli police said the man, Samir Sirhan, had a criminal record and was shot after a group of youths pelted the guard with stones. But residents said that Sirhan, a father of five young children, was unlikely to have participated in the violence.

After the shooting, rioting spread throughout Silwan and to the nearby walled Old City. During the man's funeral procession, hundreds of protesters set tires on fire, smashed the windows of several buses and screamed for revenge. "We will defend you with our blood and souls, martyr," protesters chanted.

At one point, Israeli riot police stormed the hilltop compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The site is the most explosive in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in the past, even seemingly minor incidents have ignited clashes and protests throughout the region.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police moved into the compound after stone throwers attacked Jewish worshippers at the adjacent Western Wall, the holiest prayer site for Jews.

He said the stone throwers fled into the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third holiest site, and after a standoff for several minutes, riot forces pulled back without further incident.

In other unrest, Palestinian crowds overturned three cars with passengers inside, in one case dragging a man out of his vehicle and stabbing him. Five buses had their windows smashed out, in one case forcing passengers to get off and flee, and a paramilitary police jeep was set on fire and destroyed.

Wearing shirts over their faces, protesters hurled chunks of concrete and rocks at police. Black-clad forces with riot shields responded with tear gas, sending acrid smoke over the neighborhood.

A total of 10 Israelis were wounded, including the stabbing victim who was seriously hurt, police said. Palestinian medics said 14 people were lightly hurt. By early evening, the situation had calmed.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an Israeli advocacy group, recently wrote in a report that Israeli security firms act like a private police force for Silwan's Jewish residents. It said the firms often receive government funding and frequently use threats and violence against Arab residents, while police are reluctant to intervene.

"What happened to Samir could happen to anybody," said Murad Shafi, a 35-year-old neighbor of Sirhan. "You wake up, maybe you shout at someone. Maybe you argue. But in the end, you are dead."

Wednesday's violence was the widest spread in Jerusalem since President Barack Obama formally launched the first Israeli-Palestinian peace talks since 2008 earlier this month in Washington. He hopes to forge an agreement in a year.

Abbas has repeatedly threatened to walk away from the talks if Israel resumes settlement construction after a 10-month moratorium expires on Sunday.

Netanyahu imposed the slowdown, which has put thousands of planned housing starts on hold, last November in a bid to lure the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. He also has quietly halted new construction in east Jerusalem.

In his address to the Jewish leaders, Abbas called on Israel to extend the building restrictions for several months while the sides negotiate the final borders between Israel and a future Palestine.

"At that time, Israelis will be free to build in their territory and the Palestinians the same," he said. Netanyahu has rejected that suggestion, though he has signaled he will keep settlement activity to a minimum.

Throughout his two-hour meeting Tuesday, Abbas struck a conciliatory tone as he answered questions. On several occasions, he referred to Netanyahu as his "partner" in the quest for peace.

In New York, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations said Abbas' comments had been misconstrued and the burden was on Netanyahu to determine which direction the talks go.

"The position of the president is still the same," Mansour told AP on Wednesday.

The settlement issue is one of the thorniest in the peace talks. Some 300,000 Israelis live in settlements dotting the West Bank, in addition to 180,000 Israelis living in Jewish neighborhoods built in east Jerusalem.

The Palestinians say that by gobbling up territory they claim, continued settlement expansion makes it ever more difficult to establish a viable Palestinian state.

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