Joseph’s Tomb in West Bank torched by Palestinians as Israeli security forces deploy in huge numbers in Jerusalem after two weeks of deadly unrest
Palestinians have torched a site revered by Jews in the West Bank overnight in an incident that threatens to further inflame more than two weeks of deadly unrest, as fresh protests were planned for Friday.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, under pressure over recent comments that some have labelled incitement, quickly condemned the fire at the site known as Joseph’s Tomb in the northern city of Nablus.
Video showed what looked like an extensive blaze and the Israeli army called it “a despicable act” of desecration.
The arson came as Palestinians called for a “Friday of revolution” against Israel, and Jerusalem police barred men under 40 from attending the main weekly prayers at the flashpoint al-Aqsa mosque, seeking to keep young protesters away.
Israeli security forces have deployed massively in Jerusalem after two weeks of Palestinian attacks in the city and across Israel. From Sunday, some 300 soldiers will reinforce police numbers.
The last time soldiers deployed in such large numbers was in 2002, during the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, according to a security source.
The United Nations security council will hold an emergency meeting at Jordan’s request on Friday to discuss the upsurge of violence.
The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, on Thursday reiterated his willingness to meet Abbas, while accusing him of inciting and encouraging violence.
“It’s time President Abbas stops not only justifying it, but also calling for it,” Netanyahu told reporters.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, who plans to travel to the region “in the coming days” to try to calm tempers, also warned the Palestinian leader not to incite violence.
Abbas has called for peaceful protest, but had not explicitly condemned any attacks in the recent wave of unrest until Friday’s statement on the holy site. He said the “illegal” arson “offends our culture and our religion and our morals”. He said a committee would investigate and the damage would be repaired.
The Palestinian leader has faced heavy criticism over a statement on Wednesday night in which he claimed a Palestinian youth had been executed. Israel has released photos and videos which they say show the 13-year-old, accused of taking part in two stabbing attacks, recovering in hospital.
Joseph’s Tomb, inside a compound in the Palestinian refugee camp of Balata in Nablus, has been the scene of recurring violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Many Jews believe it to be the final resting place of the biblical Joseph, while Muslims believe that an Islamic cleric, Sheikh Yussef (Joseph) Dawiqat was buried there two centuries ago.
The shrine is under Palestinian control and off-limits to Israelis except on escorted trips organised by the army. The Israeli military said it would make the repairs necessary to allow visits to continue and “take all measures to bring the perpetrators of this despicable act to justice”.
There were warnings that the fire could worsen the unrest.
“Burning Joseph’s Tomb is a dangerous attempt to exacerbate an already tense environment,” Nickolay Mladenov, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said on Twitter.
There has been a spate of stabbing attacks and violent protests have swept thePalestinian territories. Thirty-three Palestinians have died, including alleged attackers, and hundreds more wounded in clashes with Israeli forces. Seven Israelis have also been killed and dozens wounded.
In the two intifadas of 1987-1993 and 2000-2005, thousands of people were killed and many more wounded in near daily violence.
On Wednesday, police began setting up checkpoints in parts of annexed east Jerusalem, including a neighbourhood home to three Palestinians who carried out gun, knife and car-ramming attacks this week.
The move follows a decision by Netanyahu’s security cabinet authorising police to seal off or impose a curfew on parts of Jerusalem. Netanyahu has come under immense pressure to halt the violence.
Abbas again called on Wednesday night for peaceful resistance, but young people fed up with Israel’s occupation and the lack of progress in peace efforts have grown tired of his leadership.
The attackers seem to be mostly acting on their own, with no mastermind for security forces to pursue.
While the attacks have fanned Israeli anger and fear, online video footage of security forces shooting dead alleged assailants has fed Palestinian anger, with protesters seeing the killings as unjustified.
The violence began on 1 October, when a suspected cell of the Islamist movement Hamas murdered a Jewish settler couple in the West Bank in front of their children. Those killings followed repeated clashes at east Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound in September between Israeli forces and Palestinian youths.