(CNSNews.com) – A State Department spokesman on Tuesday declined to “assign blame” for what he called “the cycle of violence that’s currently taking place” in Israel and the disputed territories. Seven Israelis have been killed and dozens more injured by Palestinians in more than two dozen knife and gun attacks since October 1.
Over the same period, 27 Palestinians have been killed, according to Palestinian reports, in clashes with security forces or while carrying out attacks on Jews.
Israel has accused Palestinian leaders and media of inciting the violence by repeatedly – and falsely, it says – accusing Israel of trying to change the status quo on the Temple Mount (known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif). The site in Jerusalem’s Old City, where the biblical Temples once stood, is the holiest in Judaism. It is home to the al-Aqsa mosque, revered by Muslims as the third holiest in Islam.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a daily briefing Secretary of State John Kerry in separate weekend phone conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas had “reiterated the importance of strongly condemning violence and combating incitement, as well as taking affirmative steps to reduce tensions.”
“And the secretary stressed the importance of upholding the status quo in word and in deed at Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, and of preventing inflammatory rhetoric and actions that will increase tensions,” Toner added.
“Does the administration believe that Israel is inciting, or not condemning, violence?” the Associated Press’ Matt Lee asked.
“I think what we’ve been very clear about saying is that we want to see both sides take affirmative steps, affirmative actions that reduce tensions in the region,” he said.
“But that message is delivered to both, not just to one,” Lee noted. “So the U.S., the administration sees both sides at fault here. Is that correct?”
Toner said both sides need to decrease tensions that are leading to violence.
“But you’re asking me to assign blame, and I don’t think that’s the case. I think what we need to see is just a reduction in the tension, reduction in the actions that we’ve seen over the past couple of days.”
Lee asked what more the administration wanted to see Netanyahu do in condemning the violence.
“For one thing, as I said, upholding the status quo in Haram al-Sharif and Temple Mount,” Toner replied.
“But has there been a suggestion that the status quo was going to be changed?” Lee asked.
Toner did not answer, instead repeating the call for “both sides” to take affirmative actions to decrease tensions.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily saying that we’re dissatisfied with either one party or the other,” he said. “We’re just saying that to the end the current cycle, both sides need to take action.”
‘We bless every drop of blood that has been spilled for Jerusalem’
Although Israel captured the Temple Mount with the rest of eastern Jerusalem in 1967 – it had been occupied by Jordan since 1948 – every Israeli government since has allowed it to be administered by an Islamic trust supervised by the Jordanian government.
Visits by non-Muslims to the hilltop platform, which is about 35 acres in area, are permitted but restricted, and formal prayer there by non-Muslims is prohibited.
Tensions frequently rise during the Jewish high holidays every fall, when Jewish visitors to the site regularly come under attack by Palestinians hurling rocks and firebombs at visitors and Israeli police – at times from inside the Al-Aqsa mosque itself.
In a speech on Palestinian TV last month, Abbas said Al-Aqsa belongs to the Palestinians and Jews “have no right to defile it with their filthy feet. We will not allow them to, and we will do everything in our power to protect Jerusalem.”
In the same speech, according to a translation by Palestinian Media Watch, Abbas said, “We bless every drop of blood that has been spilled for Jerusalem, which is clean and pure blood, blood spilled for Allah, Allah willing. Every martyr will reach paradise, and everyone wounded will be rewarded by Allah.”
Addressing the U.N. General Assembly on September 30, Abbas accused Israel of trying to create “a new reality” at the site by allowing “extremists” to “enter the mosque at certain times,” warning that it would lead to an explosion.
Netanyahu’s office in response said the speech was encouraging “incitement and lawlessness.”
“Israel is strictly maintaining the status quo on the Temple Mount and is committed to continuing to do so in accordance with the agreements,” it said.
Although clashes at the Temple Mount had escalated during the second half of September, the first in the latest spate of attacks by individual Palestinians occurred on October 1 – the day after Abbas’ New York speech – when an Israeli family was ambushed in the West Bank and the parents shot dead in front of their four children.