Monday, March 23, 2009

Israel bans 'capital of Arab culture' Jerusalem celebrations

AFP - Events were being held in the West Bank on Saturday to mark Jerusalem's designation as the 2009 "capital of Arab culture" while Israel banned them in the disputed Holy City itself.

The streets of Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem, were bedecked with the flags of Arab countries for the cultural festival to be launched by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas at 5 pm (1500 GMT).

It was there that Abbas and prime minister Salam Fayyad received officials from Morocco, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Jordan.

The Palestinian Authority had organised cultural activites in several locations -- including annexed, mostly Arab east Jerusalem -- to celebrate the city's proclamation as this year's capital of Arab culture.

Arab culture ministers have named a city each year since 1996. Damascus held the title in 2008.

But Israeli police vowed to "prevent any Palestinian attempt to hold official activities" in Jerusalem, and on Saturday police reinforcements were posted throughout the eastern part of the city.

The authorities also set up barricades along routes to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound -- Islam's third holiest site -- and prevented young men from entering the area, which in the past has been the site of violent demonstrations.

Israeli media reported that 11 people were arrested in Jerusalem. Police spokesmen could not immediately be reached to confirm the number.

Israeli police were also confiscating flags and banners associated with the event, and at one point they broke up a small protest of a few dozen people, an AFP photographer said.

Elsewhere in east Jerusalem, children at a German school released a hundred red, white, green and black balloons -- the colours of the Palestinian flag -- into the air moments before police entered to halt the display, an AFP correspondent said.

Israel, which annexed east Jerusalem after occupying it in the 1967 Six-Day War, bans any official Palestinian activity in the city, which the Jewish state considers its "eternal, undivided" capital.

The international community has never recognised Israel's claim to east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of their own promised future state.

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