RAMALLAH, West Bank — Stone-throwing protests erupted across the West Bank and Gaza on Friday, and assailants firebombed a site revered by Jews as the tomb of biblical Joseph on a "day of rage" against Israel. Four Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, including a laborer disguised as a journalist who stabbed an Israeli soldier.
The U.N. Security Council convened an emergency meeting to discuss the escalation, which has been marked by a spate of Palestinian stabbing attacks and an Israeli security crackdown. Troops manned roadblocks in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, a center of unrest, and ordered some Palestinian men to lift their shirts to show they were not armed.
The violence comes at a time when a possible partition of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean into two states — Palestine alongside Israel — is fading.
This has left many Palestinians frustrated because all paths to independence appear blocked. The tensions have also been stoked by Palestinian fears that Israel is trying to expand its presence at a major Muslim-run shrine in Jerusalem, a claim Israel has denied.
Taye-Brook Zerihoun, a senior U.N. official, told the Security Council that Israel's long rule over the Palestinians and diminishing prospects for achieving a Palestinian state have transformed "long-simmering Palestinian anger into outright rage." The current crisis cannot be resolved by security measures alone, Zerihoun warned.
Israel's new U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of "dangerous incitement" against Israel with what he called "hate-filled speech," including claims that Israel is trying to change the status quo at the hilltop Jerusalem compound. The shrine is revered by Muslims as the spot where Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven and by Jews as the home of their biblical Temples.
Over the past month, eight Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks, most of them stabbings. During the same period, 36 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire — 15 labeled by Israel as attackers, and the others in clashes between stone-throwers and Israeli troops.
Most of the attacks on Israelis were carried out by Palestinians with no known ties to militant groups. Palestinian factions, including Abbas' Fatah and its rival, the Islamic militant Hamas, have mainly been involved in organizing stone-throwing protests in the West Bank and on the Israel-Gaza border.
On Friday, hundreds joined protests after Muslim noon prayers, after Palestinian factions called for a "day of rage."
Israeli troops opened fire in several locations, killing three Palestinians, including two in Gaza and a 19-year-old in the town of Beit Furik in the West Bank.
Munadil Hanani, a protest organizer in Beit Furik, said hundreds of Palestinians walked to an Israeli military post on the outskirts of the town and threw stones at troops who responded with live rounds and rubber-coated steel pellets. "They were very angry and wanted to attack the soldiers," he said of the stone-throwers, most of them teens.
He said tensions rose in recent days after Israel announced plans to demolish the family homes of several suspects in a shooting ambush earlier this month that killed an Israeli couple who lived in a nearby Jewish settlement.
"This intifada (uprising) will continue in various forms," Hanani said. "People are fed up."
Nearby, in the West Bank city of Nablus, dozens of Palestinians firebombed a site known as Joseph's Tomb that is revered by some Jews as the burial place of the son of the biblical patriarch Jacob. The pre-dawn attack blackened exterior walls of the stone structure located near the Balata refugee camp and a scene of Israeli-Palestinian clashes in the past.
Abbas condemned the arson as "irresponsible," ordered an investigation and promised quick repairs.
U.N. Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon condemned the arson attack and welcomed Abbas' condemnation, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.
"This reprehensible act is yet another example of the escalating violence in the region, threatening to further inflame sensitivities owing to the religious significance of Joseph's Tomb," Haq said. "The secretary-general calls on all sides to respect the sanctity of all holy sites, refrain from any inflammatory actions or statements and reject the extremist elements that are pursuing a political agenda seeking to transform the current situation into a religious conflict."
The Palestinian leader has tried to lower the temperature, telling his security commanders that armed attacks on Israelis hurt Palestinian interests. However, he has also told his forces not to stop Palestinian stone-throwers heading to confrontations with Israeli troops.
Dore Gold, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, said Joseph's Tomb was targeted "just because it is a place in which Jews pray." Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, said the attack violates freedom of worship and that the military will "bring the perpetrators of this despicable act to justice."
For centuries, the site has been identified with the biblical Joseph but some Palestinians say it was a sheikh's grave or used as a mosque. The tomb has become a popular prayer site in recent years among some sects of religious Jews.
The site is located in an area under Palestinian self-rule and visits by Jews are coordinated between Palestinian security forces and Israeli troops.
In the West Bank city of Hebron, meanwhile, a 26-year-old Palestinian laborer posed as a journalist covering a stone-throwing clash to get close to Israeli soldiers. Wearing a T-shirt with the word "press" in large letters on the front and back, the man mingled with journalists standing near the soldiers, who were firing tear gas at stone-throwers.
At one point, shouts were heard, followed by several gunshots.
Troops rushed to the scene where one of the soldiers had been stabbed, and administered aid to the wounded soldier who was eventually taken away by ambulance. The attacker, identified as Eyad Awawdeh, lay on the ground, clutching a knife in his right hand.
The incident heightened concerns among journalists about their safety.
Groups representing journalists, including the Foreign Press Association, said the impostor's actions could further endanger reporters, photographers and camera operators.
"Everybody is worried that it will be open season on reporters," said Glenys Sugarman, executive director of the group, which represents journalists who work for international news outlets covering Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
The Foreign Press Association has complained of harassment by both Israeli and Palestinian forces, including cases in which reporters were beaten and equipment smashed.
Friday's stabbing "marks a worrying development," the group said, urging that media operate with heightened caution in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
"We utterly deplore this violation of press privilege and call on local Palestinian media organizations to immediately verify all media credentials to ensure there are no violations," the statement said.
Laub reported from Jericho, West Bank. Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Fares Akram in Gaza City and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.