JERUSALEM – Israel insisted Friday it would continue building in contested east Jerusalem, taking an uncompromising stance against U.S. pressure following a tense visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington.
"The prime minister's position is that there is no change in Israeli policy on Jerusalem," Netanyahu's office said in a statement. Shortly after, he convened a previously scheduled meeting of key ministers to frame a response to Washington's demands for Israeli peace gestures.
Israeli soldiers, meanwhile, clashed Friday with militants inside the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in some of the fiercest fighting there since the January 2009 Gaza war.
Security officials with Gaza's Hamas-run Interior Ministry said Israeli soldiers were firing artillery and tank rounds near the southern city of Khan Younis. Footage broadcast on Al-Arabiya television showed ambulances that were unable to reach the scene of the fighting because of the gunfire waiting in alleyways as residents gathered around. Local medical officials reported that five civilians were injured.
The Israeli military provided no information on the clashes. The Hamas military wing's Web site said its gunmen were involved — a departure from the Islamic militant group's tendency over the past year to avoid confrontation with Israeli forces.
Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida told Hamas radio that Israeli forces "fell into an ambush" set by Hamas militants east of Khan Younis. He did not elaborate.
The outbreak of violence highlighted the region's volatility as the U.S. strives to get Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking back on track.
The Obama administration says Israeli construction in east Jerusalem undermines U.S. efforts to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The Palestinians want that sector of the holy city for a future capital and view the expanding Jewish presence there as a challenge to their claim.
Netanyahu's meetings with President Barack Obama and other top U.S. officials did not appear to quell U.S. anger over a major east Jerusalem construction project whose announcement in the middle of a visit by Vice President Joe Biden touched off the worst diplomatic row between the two countries in decades.
The disclosure Wednesday that 20 new Jewish homes would be built in the heart of an Arab neighborhood in east Jerusalem only stoked the frictions.
In the Syrian capital of Damascus, tens of thousands of Syrians and Palestinians gathered Friday for a government-orchestrated "march of anger" against Israeli construction in Jerusalem's eastern sector.
Protesters waved Syrian and Palestinian flags and pictures of Hamas leaders as they shouted anti-Israel slogans, and senior Hamas official Mohammed Nazzal condemned what he called Israel's "brutal aggression" on holy sites.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem immediately after capturing it from Jordan during the 1967 Mideast war and does not consider Jewish construction there to be settlement activity. The international community does not recognize the annexation and equates the Jewish construction there with West Bank settlements.
Should Netanyahu decide at any point to bend on east Jerusalem, he would likely do so at the expense of watching his hardline government splinter. He could, however, replace his hawkish coalition partners with the moderate Kadima Party, whose leader, Tzipi Livni, is open to sharing the holy city.
Israel's unyielding stance earned Netanyahu a chilly reception this week at the White House. In what was widely regarded as a snub, the news media were not allowed into any part of the two meetings between Obama and Netanyahu. No joint news conference was held afterward, no statements were issued about what happened, and the White House did not even release a photograph.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also rebuked the visiting Israeli leader, saying expansionist Israeli housing policies erode trust and compromise Washington's position as an honest broker.
Netanyahu received a warm public reception from Congress, however, an indication that the administration might be limited in how much pressure it can apply. American Jewish backers of Israel are traditionally reliable supporters of the Democratic Party.
The fate of Jerusalem is the most explosive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war and immediately annexed the area — a move that has never been recognized internationally. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of a state that includes the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Over the years, Israel has built a ring of Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem to cement its control over the area. About 180,000 Israelis live in these neighborhoods and about 2,000 more live in Palestinian neighborhoods.
The latest plans for construction in east Jerusalem have thrown into question the fate of U.S.-mediated peace talks that the Palestinians and Israelis had agreed to just before the diplomatic feud erupted.