U.S. church group heads back from Holy Land after virus scare: Palestinian mayor

By Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh

BEIT JALA, West Bank (Reuters) – Thirteen Americans were heading home from the Holy Land on Monday after they were cleared in a coronavirus scare, the mayor of the Palestinian town where they were quarantined said.

The group, from the 3Circle Church in Fairhope, Alabama, was placed in quarantine at the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala on Wednesday after several hotel staff there tested positive.

Beit Jala is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, near the biblical city of Bethlehem.

The Americans’ quarantine ended after they tested negative for coronavirus on Sunday.

Beit Jala Mayor Nicola Khamis told Reuters they left on Monday for Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, outside Tel Aviv, to fly on to the United States. A Reuters witness saw the group, at least one of them wearing a surgical mask, boarding a van in Beit Jala.

Twenty-five Palestinians in the West Bank have been confirmed as infected with coronavirus, 24 of them in the Bethlehem area.

Under a 30-day state of emergency declared by the Palestinian Authority, foreigners have been turned back at checkpoints and schools, colleges, kindergartens and national parks ordered closed.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Netanyahu announces plans for 3,000 new settler homes near East Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday he was reviving a plan for the construction of 3,000 new settler homes near East Jerusalem, a project effectively frozen after international opposition.

Netanyahu’s announcement, during an election campaign in which he has sought to shore up support from pro-settlement voters, was condemned by the Palestinians as another blow to their hopes for an independent state.

He has pledged to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and the area’s Jordan Valley as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan presented by U.S. President Donald Trump last month. Palestinians have rejected Trump’s blueprint as biased towards Israel.

Opponents of the project, in the Givat Hamatos area adjacent to the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa, said it would sever parts of East Jerusalem from the nearby Palestinian town of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

Construction of 2,610 housing units for Jews in Givat Hamatos was approved by a Jerusalem planning committee in 2014. The Israeli government effectively put the project on hold after the United States and the European Union criticized the plan.

Visiting an area overlooking the Israeli settlement of Har Homa on the outskirts of Jerusalem on Thursday, Netanyahu said in a video he posted on social media: “Today I approved the construction in Givat Hamatos” of 3,000 homes for Jews, of which 1,000 would be marketed soon.

He said some 1,000 housing units would be built for Arabs in Beit Safafa. No construction date was announced for either area.

In a separate project, Netanyahu said another 2,200 housing units would be built in Har Homa, located like Givat Hamatos in an area of the West Bank that Israel annexed to Jerusalem after the area’s capture in the 1967 Middle East war.

“Netanyahu’s insistence on building thousands of settlement units is the systematic destruction of the two-state solution and the implementation of the Trump plan,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said after the Israeli leader’s announcement.

Palestinians and much of the world view Israel’s settlements in areas seized in the 1967 conflict as illegal under international law, but the United States and Israel dispute this.

 

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. warns Israel against ‘unilateral’ West Bank moves

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A U.S. envoy warned Israel on Sunday not to declare sovereignty over West Bank land without Washington’s consent, pushing back against calls for immediate action by ultra-nationalists within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, unveiled on Jan 28, envisages Israel keeping key swathes of the occupied territory where Palestinians seek statehood. But the question of timing has opened up a rare rift between the allies.

Netanyahu initially pledged a speedy “application of Israeli law” – de facto annexation – to Jewish settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley, delighting his religious-rightist base ahead of Israel’s March 2 election, where he hopes to win a fifth term.

But he was forced to backpedal after the White House made clear it wanted a U.S.-Israeli mapping process – likely to take weeks or more – completed first.

A demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag as the Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit is seen in the background, during a protest against the U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, in the village of Bilin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 7, 2020. Picture taken February 7, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

The Palestinians, for their part, have rejected the Trump plan as a non-starter.

With Defence Minister Naftali Bennett and other Israeli ultra-nationalists urging an immediate cabinet vote on sovereignty in the West Bank, the U.S. ambassador intervened.

“Israel is subject to the completion (of) a mapping process by a joint Israeli-American committee. Any unilateral action in advance of the completion of the committee process endangers the Plan & American recognition,” envoy David Friedman tweeted.

In a separate speech, Friedman elaborated that his message was “a little bit of patience, to go through a process, to do it right, is not something which we think is too much to ask for”.

‘POTENTIALLY ADVERSE’

“With the news out that the (Israeli) cabinet was about to be pushed in a direction that was potentially adverse to our view of the process, we just let people know where we stand,” he told the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) think-tank.

“It was not a threat.”

In parallel, Netanyahu invoked the White House position.

“The (U.S.) recognition is the main thing and we don’t want to endanger that,” the premier told his cabinet on Sunday.

At the JCPA, Friedman said the mapping process was unlikely to be completed before March 2. But he held out the possibility of implementation even if the election does not produce a clear winner, as was the case twice in the last year.

Asked if Washington first wanted a permanent Israeli government – as opposed to a caretaker government of the kind Netanyahu has headed by default for months – in place, Friedman said: “We have not made that demand.”

Most countries consider Israeli settlements on land captured in the 1967 Middle East war to be a violation of international law. Trump has changed U.S. policy to withdraw such objections and the prospect of Israeli annexations have drawn widespread condemnation.

Palestinians say the settlements make a future state unviable. Israel cites security needs as well as biblical and historical ties to the land on which they are built.

“Any unilateral step is rejected whether it is taken before or after the election,” said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “Facts can’t be created on the ground and they will never become a reality.”

“The only thing we can accept is the Palestinian map on the 1967 borders,” Abu Rdainah added.

On Saturday, Netanyahu told an election rally that the mapping process with the Americans was already under way. “We’ve been waiting since 1967 and some people are making a big deal out of a few weeks,” he said, alluding to rightist rivals.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Potter)

Palestinian and U.S. leaders blame each other for violence

By Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian and U.S. leaders blamed each other for a surge of violence, as mourners gathered in the occupied West Bank for the funeral of a Palestinian police officer shot dead during unrest, and Israel tightened security ahead of Friday Muslim prayers.

Tensions were high a day after two Palestinians were killed and 16 Israelis injured amid Palestinian anger at U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, unveiled last week with Israel’s prime minister at his side.

There were sporadic clashes on Friday between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces near Azzun, where the funeral was held for the police officer killed in Jenin the previous day.

Palestinian authorities said he was killed by Israeli gunfire. Israeli officials did not comment, and Israeli media reported that he was shot by troops by mistake.

Palestinians also clashed with Israeli troops in Jericho and burned tyres in the West Bank village of Bil’in, and Palestinian medics said one protester had been critically wounded near Tulkarm.

“The Palestinian people will not allow the ‘Deal of the Century’ to pass,” said Mohammed Barakeh, waving a Palestinian flag in Bil’in.

“They are fighting for their national character and the independence of their country,” added Barakeh, a former Israeli lawmaker and member of Israel’s 21% Arab minority, many of whom identify with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza.

President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority has rejected Trump’s peace plan, which would give Israel most of what it has sought during decades of conflict, including the disputed holy city of Jerusalem and nearly all the occupied land on which it has built settlements.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Washington was to blame for the unrest since the plan was unveiled.

“Those who introduce plans for annexation and the legalizing of occupation and settlements are really responsible for deepening violence and counter-violence,” he said. Abbas would go to the U.N. Security Council with “a genuine peace plan”, Erekat said.

Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner, the principal architect of the U.S. plan, has repeatedly denounced the Palestinian leadership, a break from decades of diplomacy when Washington strove to appear as a neutral broker. On Thursday he blamed Abbas for the violence.

“I think he does have responsibility,” Kushner said after briefing United Nations Security Council ambassadors. “He calls for days of rage in response, and he said that before he even saw the plan.”

Israeli police said security chiefs had met late on Thursday and decided to increase security “across the country, with emphasis on Jerusalem”.

A police statement singled out the risk of trouble during Friday prayers at the Jerusalem holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

Palestinians have long boycotted relations with the Trump administration, which they view as biased against them. Washington says its plan offers a path toward a Palestinian state, and blames the Palestinian leadership for rejecting it over unrealistic demands.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Peter Graff and Hugh Lawson)

Palestinians protest, Israel braces ahead of Trump plan

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Stephen Farrell

GAZA CITY/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Thousands of Palestinians demonstrated against U.S. President Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan on Tuesday hours before its scheduled release at a ceremony in Washington.

Israeli troops meanwhile reinforced positions near a flashpoint site between the Palestinian city of Ramallah and the Jewish settlement of Beit El in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

While Israeli leaders have welcomed Trump’s long-delayed plan, Palestinian leaders rejected it even before its official release. They say his administration is biased toward Israel.

The Palestinians fear Trump’s blueprint will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – areas Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War – by permitting Israel to annex large chunks of occupied territory including blocs of Jewish settlements.

Diab Al-Louh, the Palestinians’ ambassador to Egypt, said on Tuesday they had requested an urgent meeting of the Arab League council at ministerial level – which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would attend.

GAZA PROTESTS

In Gaza City on Tuesday, protesters waved Palestinian flags and held aloft posters of Abbas. “Trump is a fool, Palestine is not for sale!” an activist shouted through a loudspeaker.

Others chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” as they burned tires and posters of Trump. More protests were expected after Trump announces details of his plan later in the day.

An Israeli military spokesman said troops had been sent to reinforce the West Bank’s Jordan Valley – an area which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to partially annex.

Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian mission to Britain, told Reuters in London that Trump’s peace plan was merely “political theater”.

“It is not a peace deal. It is the ‘bantustan-isation’ of the people of Palestine and the land of Palestine. We will be turned into bantustans,” he said, referring to the nominally independent black enclaves in apartheid-era South Africa.

“Jan. 28, 2020 will mark the official legal stamp of approval of the United States for Israel to implement a full-fledged apartheid system,” he said.

Israel vehemently rejects any comparison to the former South African regime.

GOOD DEAL?

Trump will deliver joint remarks with Netanyahu at the White House later on Tuesday to outline his plan, the result of three years work by his senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

He met with Netanyahu and the Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz ahead of the announcement. Both were briefed on its contents.

Netanyahu said it was “the opportunity of a century and we’re not going to pass it by.” Gantz called it a “significant and historic milestone.”

A Netanyahu spokesman said he would fly to Moscow on Wednesday to brief Russian President Vladimir Putin on the proposals.

But Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down in 2014, and it is far from clear that the Trump plan will resuscitate them.

Palestinian and Arab sources who were briefed on a draft of the plan fear that it will seek to bribe Palestinians into accepting Israeli occupation, in what could be a prelude to Israel annexing about half of the West Bank.

Further obstacles include the continued expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied land and the rise to power in Gaza of the Islamist movement Hamas, which is formally committed to Israel’s destruction.

Palestinian leaders say they were not invited to Washington, and that no plan can work without them. An Abbas spokesman urged any Arab or Muslim officials invited to the ceremony to boycott it.

Addressing their fears, Trump said on Monday: “They probably won’t want it initially…but I think in the end they will. It’s very good for them. In fact it’s overly good to them.”

But on Monday Abbas said he would not agree to any deal that did not secure a two-state solution. That formula, the basis for many years of frustrated international peace efforts, envisages Israel co-existing with a Palestinian state.

Palestinians have refused to deal with the Trump administration in protest at such pro-Israeli policies as its moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, whose eastern half the Palestinians seek for a future capital.

The Trump administration in November reversed decades of U.S. policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington no longer regarded the settlements on West Bank land as a breach of international law. Palestinians and most countries view the settlements as illegal, which Israel disputes.

DOUBLE TROUBLE

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said both Trump and Netanyahu were looking to change the subject from their own domestic troubles.

“The problem is it doesn’t feel like this is the beginning of an important initiative,” Alterman said.

Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives last month and is on trial in the Senate on abuse of power charges.

On Tuesday Netanyahu was formally indicted in court on corruption charges, after he withdrew his bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Both men deny any wrongdoing.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Dan Williams and Steven Holland in Washington; Editing by Angus Macswan and Mark Heinrich)

Palestinians decry Trump peace plan before he meets Israeli leaders

By Steve Holland and Dan Williams

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to disclose details of his Middle East peace plan to Israeli leaders on Monday as Palestinian officials decried it as a bid “to finish off” the Palestinian cause.

Trump will meet separately with right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist opposition leader Benny Gantz in Washington over his long-delayed proposals, which have been kept secret.

Palestinians fear the plan will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Palestinian leaders say they were not invited to Washington and that no peace plan can work without them. Ahead of the U.S.-Israeli meetings, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said Trump and Netanyahu were using the plan as a distraction from their domestic troubles.

Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives last month and is on trial in the Senate on abuse of power charges. Netanyahu faces corruption charges and an national election on March 2, his third in less than a year. Both men deny wrongdoing.

“This plan is to protect Trump against being impeached and to protect Netanyahu from going to jail, and it is not a peace plan,” Shtayyeh said on Monday at a cabinet meeting in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“We reject it, and we demand the international community not be a partner to it because it contradicts the basics of international law and inalienable Palestinian rights,” he added.

“It is nothing but a plan to finish off the Palestinian cause.”

Neighboring Jordan, which along with Egypt is one of two Arab states that have peace treaties with Israel, said on Thursday that annexation of the occupied Jordan Valley – as Netanyahu has pledged to do – “will blow up the peace process”.

WASHINGTON MEETINGS

Trump’s initiative, whose principal author is his son-in-law Jared Kushner, follows a long line of efforts to resolve one of the world’s most intractable problems.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014. The United Nations and most governments around the world back a blueprint for a two-state solution – an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel, the foundation of every peace plan for decades.

Trump hoped to release his own plan last year but was forced to delay as Netanyahu twice tried unsuccessfully to form a governing coalition after inconclusive elections.

After Monday’s meetings with Netanyahu and Gantz, Trump will on Tuesday deliver joint remarks with Netanyahu at the White House, where the president may reveal details of his proposal.

But whether it truly will jumpstart the long-stalled effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians together is far from certain.

Palestinians have refused to engage the Trump administration and denounced its first stage – a $50-billion economic revival plan announced last June.

The White House hope was that if Trump could get the support of both Netanyahu and Gantz for the plan, it would help provide some momentum. A U.S. official said Trump wants to know they are both on board with the plan before announcing it.

Gantz, Netanyahu’s principal domestic political rival, last week lifted his objection to having the plan published before Israel’s March election.

“I am looking forward to meeting the president – a president of utmost friendliness to the State of Israel – on a matter that is very important for the State of Israel – with national, strategic and security ramifications,” Gantz said as he landed in Washington on Sunday.

But Trump, preoccupied with November’s re-election bid, can ill afford to wait months for Israel to decide its next prime minister, a U.S. official said.

HONEST MEDIATOR?

Palestinians have called Trump’s proposal dead in the water even before its publication.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said Washington can no longer be regarded as an honest mediator, accusing it of pro-Israel bias. This followed a series of Trump decisions that delighted Israel but dismayed and infuriated Palestinians.

These included recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and slashing hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to

the Palestinians.

Palestinian and Arab sources who were briefed on the draft fear it seeks to bribe Palestinians into accepting Israeli occupation, in what could be a prelude to Israel annexing about half of the West Bank including most of the Jordan Valley, the strategic and fertile easternmost strip of the territory.

Continuing obstacles to a peace settlement include the expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied land and the rise to power in Gaza of the Islamist movement Hamas, which is formally committed to Israel’s destruction.

The Trump administration in November reversed decades of U.S. policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Washington no longer regarded Israeli settlements on West Bank land as inconsistent with international law.

Palestinians and most of the international community view the settlements as illegal. Israel disputes this.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Dan Williams; additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem and Ulf Laessing in Cairo, Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Angus MacSwan)

Christian evangelicals harvest land in settlements Israel hopes to annex

By Maayan Lubell and Elana Ringler

SHILO, West Bank (Reuters) – It’s harvest time in vineyards atop the hills of Shilo settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But it’s not Jewish settlers picking the grapes, it’s evangelical Christians.

They are volunteers for the devout U.S. evangelical group HaYovel which brings Christians to help Jewish farmers in settlements that Israel has built on land that Palestinians seek for a state.

Evangelicals have been a core support base for U.S. President Donald Trump since the 2016 election. Many are also staunch supporters of Israel, feeling a religious connection with the Jewish people and the Holy Land.

The West Bank holds special importance to evangelicals who see a divine hand in the modern-day return of Jews to a biblical homeland – and who call the territory by its Hebrew Old Testament name, Judea and Samaria.

The founder of HaYovel, Tommy Waller, is fond of quoting a passage from the book of Jeremiah, which reads: “Again I will build thee, and thou shalt be built, O virgin of Israel…Thou shalt yet plant vines upon the mountains of Samaria.”

But that land is also at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is the heartland of what the Palestinians see as a future state, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, territories that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

For the Tennessee-born Waller, helping the Jewish settlers cultivate the land means taking part in the fulfillment of a prophecy. “As a Christian, as a person who believes in the bible, it was an amazing thing to get to a place where my faith was touchable,” Waller said.

“We share a commonality between Christianity and Judaism and that’s our bible, our scripture,” said Waller at a vineyard on the outskirts of Har Bracha, another settlement whose farmers his volunteers assist.

ANNEXATION

Most of the international community regards the Israeli settlements as illegal, a view that Israel disputes.

Israeli hawks, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claim the West Bank is vital to Israel’s security. Relinquishing it to the Palestinians could put large swaths of Israel under threat of militant attacks, they say. Palestinians say there can be no viable Palestinian state without it.

In the run-up to Israel’s election next Tuesday, Netanyahu has renewed his pledge to annex parts of the West Bank if he wins. [L5N2615TB]

It’s a position that the politically powerful U.S. evangelicals have embraced.

“Evangelicals believe Judea and Samaria is bible land, because it is,” said Mike Evans, the Texas-based founder of ‘Friends of Zion Museum’ which sits in Jerusalem. “Do we think giving up Judea and Samaria is going to bring peace? No way,” said Evans, who is a member of Trump’s Faith Initiative.

The prospect of annexation has alarmed the Palestinians, who fear that Netanyahu is likely to have Trump’s backing.

“We are worried about losing our lands,” said Izzat Qadous, a retired school teacher from the Palestinian village Irak Burin, across the way from Har Bracha.

“The same way they have annexed Jerusalem, they want to annex the West Bank and soon we will hear of Trump acknowledging the annexation of the West Bank.”

About 2.9 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, according to official Palestinian figures and more than 400,000 Israeli settlers live there, according to the Israeli statistics bureau.

Evangelical leaders lobbied Trump earlier in his presidency for his 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and his relocation of the U.S. Embassy to the holy city in 2018.

“He (Trump) is rewarding moral clarity and I believe the Jewish people should be rewarded for moral clarity with recognizing more of their land,” said Evans, referring to the West Bank.

“ROCK STAR”

Trump’s administration includes evangelicals at some top positions – his vice president Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in an interview to the Christian Broadcast Network in March said that “the Lord was at work here” in respect to Trump’s Israel policies.

Evangelical support for Israel goes back decades, with political lobbying, fundraising and organized tours to the Holy Land. But some see the ties growing far stronger under both Trump and Netanyahu.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the evangelical base “has been wielding unprecedented and enormous influence within the United States for the sake of the “fulfillment of the prophecy,” thereby giving Israel a free hand to carry out its most hardline and destructive policies against the Palestinian people.”

Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said Netanyahu began cultivating ties with evangelicals during his first stint as prime minister in the 1990s.

“The Prime Minister has a keen sense of trendlines in the U.S.,” said Gold.

That effort may have paid off. “Benjamin Netanyahu among the evangelicals of the world is a rock star,” Evans said.

Critics, however, say Netanyahu has alienated many liberal American Jews by embracing Christian conservatives. Even in Israel’s settlements, the evangelicals are sometimes greeted with suspicion.

Some Israelis there fear that the Christians may have a missionary agenda – seeking to convert them. Evans said his mission in life is to defend the Jewish people.

Others are nervous about some evangelical readings of the scriptures in which the Jews’ return to the biblical land is instrumental in bringing about the end of the world, at which point those who do not accept Jesus Christ will not be saved.

“These people are pursuing God like we’re pursuing God,” said Waller. “Obviously we have our own messianic belief, but those are future things, in the kingdom to come.”

On the other hand, some settlers see the evangelicals as helping them out in fulfilling their own vision.

Nir Lavi, the owner of Har Bracha winery, says Hayovel’s contribution to his business has been more than financial.

“We are grateful,” said Lavi. “It’s a totally different phase of our own journey – the Jewish people’s redemption in their land.”

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Angus MacSwan)

Driver shot dead after ramming car into Israeli civilians in West Bank

A car is seen at the scene of what Israeli military said is a car-ramming attack near the settlement of Elazar in the Israeli-occupied West Bank August 16, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli police shot dead a Palestinian driver they said had carried out a car-ramming attack on Friday that injured two Israeli civilians in the occupied West Bank, one of them critically.

Reuters journalists at the scene saw police rolling the body of the driver into a plastic sheet. Palestinian health authorities identified him as a Palestinian national.

An Israeli police spokesman said an officer who had been near the scene opened fire after the attacker rammed his car into people by the roadside near the Israeli settlement of Elazar, close to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem.

Israel’s Magen David Adom ambulance service said one of the Israelis, 17, was unresponsive and “in severe condition with multisystem trauma” and that the other, 19, had sustained moderate injuries.

Dozens of Israeli troops and medics were at the scene. The alleged attacker’s vehicle, which bore Israeli license plates which allow greater freedom of movement in both Israel and the West Bank, was overturned by the roadside. Police said the attacker had been driving along a road which weaves past Palestinian towns and Israeli settlements.

Palestinians carried out a wave of car-rammings in the West Bank in late 2015 and 2016, but the frequency of such incidents has since ebbed.

Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians seek to establish a state there and in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Two Palestinian youths stabbed an Israeli policeman in Jerusalem’s Old City on Thursday and were shot by officers, killing one of them.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down in 2014.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Peter Graff)

Israel bars visit by U.S. Democratic lawmakers

FILE PHOTO: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) holds a news conference to discuss legislation creating "a federal grant program to help local governments invest in waste reduction initiatives", at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., July 25, 2019. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert/File Photo

By Rami Ayyub and Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Israel will bar a visit by two of its sharpest critics in the U.S. Congress, Democrats Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, who planned to tour the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the country’s deputy foreign minister said on Thursday.

“The decision has been made, the decision is not to allow them to enter,” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely told Israel’s Reshet Bet Radio.

U.S. President Donald Trump had earlier urged Israel on Thursday not to allow the visit by Tlaib and Omar, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress and members of the Democratic party’s progressive wing.

FILE PHOTO: Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) questions Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan as he testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on "Trump Administration's Child Separation Policy" on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) questions Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan as he testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on “Trump Administration’s Child Separation Policy” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

The pair have voiced support for the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Under Israeli law, backers of the BDS movement can be denied entry to Israel.

Trump has vented in recent months against Omar, Tlaib and two other Democratic congresswomen of color, accusing them of hostility to Israel in what has widely been seen as a drumming up of Republican votes for his 2020 reelection bid.

“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit,” he tweeted on Thursday. “They are a disgrace!”

No date had been formally announced for the congresswomen’s trip, but sources familiar with the planned visit said it could begin at the weekend.

Israel’s ambassador in the United States, Ron Dermer, said last month Tlaib and Omar would be let in, out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

Political commentators said a reversal of Israel’s original intention to approve the legislators’ entry likely stemmed from a desire to mirror Trump’s hard line against them.

An Israeli official said earlier on Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior members of his cabinet held consultations on Wednesday on a “final decision” about the visit.

Denying entry to elected U.S. officials could further strain relations between Netanyahu, who has highlighted his close ties with Trump in his current re-election campaign, and the Democratic leadership in Congress.

HOLY SITE

A planned tour by the two lawmakers of the holy compound in Jerusalem that houses al-Aqsa mosque, and which is revered by Jews as the site of two biblical Jewish temples, turned into an issue of contention, according to sources familiar with preparations for the visit.

The flashpoint site is in an area of Jerusalem that Israel captured along with the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally.

An official in Israel’s internal security ministry said any visit by Tlaib and Omar to the complex, revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount, would require Israeli security protection.

Violence erupted there on Sunday between Israeli police and Palestinians amid tensions over visits by Jewish pilgrims on a day when the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av overlapped.

Tlaib, 43, who was born in the United States, draws her roots to the Palestinian village of Beit Ur Al-Fauqa in the West Bank. Her grandmother and extended family live in the village.

Omar, who immigrated to the United States from Somalia as a child, represents Minnesota’s fifth congressional district.

In February, Omar, 37, apologized after Democratic leaders condemned remarks she made about the pro-Israel lobby in the United States as using anti-Semitic stereotypes.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Makini Brice in Washington; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Frances Kerry)

U.S. seeks funds for Middle East peace plan but details are vague and Palestinians unhappy

Palestinians burn a picture of U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and representations of Israeli flags during a protest against Bahrain's workshop for U.S. Middle East peace plan, in Gaza City, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Matt Spetalnick

MANAMA (Reuters) – The Trump administration prepared to launch its $50 billion economic formula for Israeli-Palestinian peace in Bahrain on Tuesday but the Palestinian leadership reiterated its disdain for the plan and Saudi Arabia, envisaged as one of its main bank-rollers, also indicated some reservations.

Bahraini armoured vehicle takes up position on bridge leading to Manama’s Four Seasons hotel for first day of U.S.-hosted “Peace to Prosperity” conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

Bahraini armoured vehicle takes up position on bridge leading to Manama’s Four Seasons hotel for first day of U.S.-hosted “Peace to Prosperity” conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

The two-day international meeting, led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, has been billed as the first part of Washington’s broader political blueprint to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the political details of the plan, which has been almost two years in the making, remain a secret. Neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments will attend the curtain-raising event in Manama, which Lebanon and Iraq are staying away from.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was scathing about its prospects of success.

“Money is important. The economy is important. But politics are more important. The political solution is more important.”

Washington will be hoping that attendees in Manama such as wealthy Gulf states will show a concrete interest in the plan, which expects donor nations and investors to contribute $50 billion to Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia – a close U.S. ally which shares a common foe with Israel in Iran – voiced support on Tuesday for “international efforts aimed at improving prosperity, investment and economic growth in the region”.

But Riyadh reiterated that any peace deal should be based on the Saudi-led Arab peace initiative that has been the Arab consensus on the necessary elements for a deal since 2002.

That plan calls for a Palestinian state drawn along borders which predate Israel’s capture of territory in the 1967 Middle East war, as well as a capital in East Jerusalem and refugees’ right of return – points rejected by Israel.

Kushner said the plan would not adhere to the Arab initiative. “It will be somewhere between the Arab Peace Initiative and between the Israeli position,” he told Al Jazeera TV in an interview to air on Tuesday.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Kushner is “committed to the initiatives of Israel’s colonial settlement councils.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, said Israel was open to the plan. “We’ll hear the American proposition, hear it fairly and with openness,” he said on Sunday.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrive at Manama's Four Seasons hotel, the venue for the U.S.-hosted "Peace to Prosperity" conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrive at Manama’s Four Seasons hotel, the venue for the U.S.-hosted “Peace to Prosperity” conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

Expectations for success are low. The Trump team concedes the economic plan – billed “Peace to Prosperity” – will be implemented only if a political solution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts is reached.

Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab states to have reached peace with Israel, are sending deputy finance ministers. Kushner’s plan has hit a political nerve in Jordan, home to millions of citizens of Palestinian refugee origin.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates want to move on from a Palestinian conflict they believe has held back the Arab world. Other Gulf states such as Kuwait, Qatar and Oman have not said who they are sending to the conference.

“If there is a one percent chance we do something good here, we should get together and try,” billionaire Mohamed Alabbar, one of Dubai’s most prominent businessmen, said after arriving at the venue in Manama and embracing two American rabbis.

POLITICAL PLAN?

It is not clear whether the Trump team plans to abandon the “two-state solution,” which involves creation of an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.

The United Nations and most nations back the two-state solution and it has underpinned every peace plan for decades.

But Trump’s team has consistently refused to commit to it, keeping the political stage of the plan a secret.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the pursuit of “peace efforts to realize the vision of two States, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security”.

Any such solution would have to settle long-standing issues such as the status of Jerusalem, mutually agreed borders, satisfying Israel’s security concerns and Palestinian demands for statehood, and the fate of Israel’s settlements and military presence in territory in Palestinians want to build that state.

In Gaza, businesses closed doors in a general strike called by the ruling Islamist Hamas group and other factions.

In the West Bank on the outskirts of Ramallah, where a small crowd of protesters was dispersed by Israeli troops firing tear gas, Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti said: “There can be no economic solution as a substitute for our freedom.”

The workshop is being held in Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, at a time of heightened tension between Tehran and Washington and its Gulf allies. Trump on Monday imposed sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader and other officials after Iran downed an U.S. drone last week.

Palestinian leaders have boycotted the conference, and are refusing to engage with the White House – accusing it of pro-Israel bias. Breaking with international convention, Trump in 2017 recognized disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a move that infuriated the Palestinians and other Arabs.

Seven Palestinian businessmen gathered in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel, the conference venue. They estimated that 15 to 20 Palestinian business representatives would be present.

“The politicians will not bring us anywhere,” said conference attendee Shlomi Fogel, an Israeli entrepreneur. “We, the business people, should be able to show them there might be another way.”

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Stephen Farrell; Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Rami Ayyub in Ramallah; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan)