WASHINGTON/ JERUSALEM - The White House has rebuked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for questioning Washington’s condemnation of his plans to build new Jewish settlements on Palestinian territories.

Diplomats here saw the sharp public rejection of Netanyau’s comments as reflecting further strains in the relations between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu after the Israeli leader’s visit to the White House last week. Netanyahu, on the CBS programme ‘Face the Nation’ on Sunday, said U.S. criticism of an Israeli move for a new settlement in East Jerusalem was ‘against American values.’ At his daily briefing, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Monday that it seemed ‘odd for him (Netanyahu) to try to defend the actions of his government by saying that our response did not reflect American values.’

‘The fact is American policy has been clear and unchanged under several administrations, both Democrat and Republican,’ Earnest said. The White House spokesman also noted that Netanyahu had ignored questions about plans for the project and reiterated that moving forward is contrary to Israel’s stated goal of negotiating a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians. The White House statement was a lengthy defence of U.S. policy toward Israel, centered around the ‘American values’ theme that Netanyahu raised. ‘The fact is, when it comes to American values, it’s American values that lend this country’s unwavering support to Israel. It’s American values that have led us to fight for and secure funding to strengthen Israel’s security in tangible ways.’ Earnest said it was U.S. funding for Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ system that has prevented Hamas rockets from hitting their targets.  ‘It’s American values that have led us to fund and build an Iron Dome system that protected the lives of countless innocent Israeli citizens,’ he said. Moreover, clashes broke out at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound Wednesday as Palestinians protested against Jews visiting the flashpoint holy site ahead of a religious feast, Israeli police said.

Dozens of Palestinian youths threw stones and fired flares at police once Jewish visitors ascended to the compound on the eve of the week-long holiday Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, police spokeswoman Luba Samri said.

Police warded off the demonstrators to the Al-Aqsa mosque, from where they threw stones and petrol bombs, lightly wounding four officers, Samri told AFP, adding that the visit then went ahead. Samri said five rioters were arrested and Palestinian medics said 17 were injured in the clashes. Azzam al-Khatib, director of the Islamic Waqf (religious endowments) body that oversees the site, said he had implored police to prevent Jews from visiting in order to avoid clashes with a group of Muslims who had spent the night at the mosque.

‘I asked that there would be no contact, but police refused, and this is the result,’ he told AFP. The Al-Aqsa compound is the scene of frequent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police. The plaza houses the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, and is revered by Jews as the location of the biblical Jewish temples, considered Judaism’s holiest place. Non-Muslim visits to the Al-Aqsa complex are permitted and regulated by police, but Jews are not allowed to pray at the site for fear it could trigger major disturbances. Jews pray instead at the Wailing Wall below. Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Wednesday accused the Israeli government of complicity in allowing Jewish ‘extremists’ into the compound. ‘Aggression against the blessed Al-Aqsa mosque is increasing, led by settlers and extremists, sponsored by the Israeli government,’ he said in a statement.

‘Our people in Jerusalem are resisting this aggression every day and they have every right to respond,’ Abbas said. On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the security establishment to increase forces in Jerusalem and take ‘vigorous action’ against those who disrupt order, noting a rise in ‘stone-throwing and violence.’

‘We need to deal with this not just due to the holidays but in a thorough manner,’ he said. Since July’s killing of a Palestinian teen by Jewish extremists and a bloody 50-day Israeli military offensive in Gaza that ended on August 26, Palestinians youths have been almost constantly on the streets throwing stones and petrol bombs at police, motorists and public transport.