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Israel tightens grip, seals off WBank for 48 hrs

Clinton says settlements "negative signal" to US-Israeli ties

Israeli forces sealed off the West Bank and massed riot squads around Jerusalem's Old City and Arab neighborhoods during Muslim weekly prayers on Friday, facing down Palestinian anger over Jewish settlement expansion, as U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton delivered a stinging rebuke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his government's announcement.

The 48-hour closure to run until midnight on Saturday drew harsh criticism, with European Parliament chief Jerzy Buzek saying it was "unhelpful" and would complicate efforts to revive the Middle East peace process.

Israel barred Palestinians from crossing from the West Bank into Israel and Jerusalem, and barred men under 50 from al-Aqsa mosque, the flashpoint holy site in the walled Old City.

Four Palestinians were detained for throwing stones and two officers were slightly injured in Jerusalem, a police spokesman said.

"Deeply negative signal"

A U.S. State Department spokesman said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone on Friday that the plan to build 1,600 new homes near Jerusalem was "a deeply negative signal about Israel's approach to the bilateral relationship ... and had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process."

"She made clear that the Israeli government needed to demonstrate not just through words but through specific actions that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

After a week in which visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden condemned Israel for approving new building just as Washington was pushing its key Middle East ally to re-launch peace talks with the Palestinians, police said a plan to avert a repeat of clashes in which dozens were wounded last Friday had worked.

Islamists in the blockaded Gaza Strip rallied supporters to protest at Israel's policies in Jerusalem: "We will redeem al-Aqsa mosque with our souls and our blood," the crowd chanted.

As demonstrators burned U.S. and Israeli flags, Khalil al-Hayya, a leader of the Hamas movement which rules Gaza, urged Hamas's rival, West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to reverse his decision to engage in "proximity talks" with Israel through U.S. mediators after a hiatus of 15 months.

"These direct and indirect negotiations provide a cover to the Zionist aggression against our people and our lands," Hayya told the crowd. "Our angry people now are calling on the Palestinian negotiator to back off from these negotiations which encourage more settlements and the Judaization of Jerusalem."

She made clear that the Israeli government needed to demonstrate not just through words but through specific actions that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process

P.J. Crowley, U.S. State Department

Awaiting Mitchell's return

Before he left Israel on Thursday, Biden made clear he did not want Abbas to hold back from talks. These have been cast in doubt by calls from Palestinian officials and the Arab League for Israel to first reverse its latest settlement approval.

The U.S. State Department said it was not aware of any refusal to hold indirect talks when President Barack Obama's envoy George Mitchell returns to Jerusalem next week.

U.S. officials said Mitchell and diplomats were working to maintain the Arab League support that has helped Abbas fend off criticism from Hamas and others that by resuming talks he has given in to U.S. and Israeli pressure. They still hope Mitchell can shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah for talks next week.

Even if he does, however, the two sides remain far apart even on the scope of a planned four-month negotiating window. Israel rejects Palestinian demands that issues at the core of the 60-year-old conflict, including the status of refugees and the sharing of Jerusalem, should be discussed from the outset.

The Israeli government agreed a measure to try to avoid a repeat of this week's diplomatic debacle, when a low-level ministry committee approved plans to build 1,600 new homes.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the cabinet would discuss on Sunday a measure that would ensure the premier's team was notified of sensitive planning decisions.

Netanyahu did not disavow Tuesday's decision by a committee at the Interior Ministry -- a move that did not breach a partial, temporary settlement freeze he has imposed. But he did criticize the minister, who is from a right-wing religious party in the coalition, for the timing of the announcement.

Our angry people now are calling on the Palestinian negotiator to back off from these negotiations which encourage more settlements and the Judaization of Jerusalem

Khalil al-Hayya, Hamas