JERUSALEM: Israeli government officials yesterday condemned Palestinians who hurled abuse and chairs at a Saudi blogger visiting Jerusalem as a guest of the Jewish state. The Saudi visitor, named by Israeli public radio as Mohammed Saud, was one of six invitees from Arab states brought to Israel by its foreign ministry to give them fresh viewpoints on the country. Hassan Kabia, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, called it "barbaric" behavior. But he would not identify the visitors, describing them only as "social activists, bloggers and media people."

Such visits have been held before, but Iraq and Saudi Arabia were taking part for the first time, the foreign ministry said. Video posted online showed mainly young Palestinians spitting, cursing and throwing plastic chairs at Saud as he walked on Monday through the Old City of Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem. The spitting and abuse continued as he toured the Al-Aqsa mosque complex. "Go and pray with the Jews," one man shouted. "What are you doing here?"

The Al-Aqsa mosque compound is the third-holiest site in Islam. Jews refer to it as the Temple Mount, revered as the location of the two biblical-era temples, and consider it their holiest place. It is located in east Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never recognized by the international community. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he met with the visitors on Tuesday and "they expressed their wish that the Arab publics would come to Israel and strengthen ties."

Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for Netanyahu, described Saud as a "peace activist". "When he came to pray at the #AlAqsaMosque, Palestinian thugs attacked him & spat on him, thus defiling this holy place," Gendelman wrote on Twitter yesterday. But the Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, said all Arabs and Muslims should boycott the Israelis in solidarity with the Palestinians. "Hamas considers the visit of an Arab media delegation to the Israeli occupation a stab in the back of the Palestinian people and a dangerous sign of accelerating normalisation with the Israeli occupation," it said in a statement.

Israeli police meanwhile said three Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem had been arrested over the "attack" of the "tourist". "More arrests were expected," a police statement said. The visit comes as Israel seeks to improve ties with Gulf Arab countries, with which it has no formal diplomatic relations. Those states have held off offering Israel formal recognition due to its continuing occupation of Palestinian territory, but relations have warmed of late, largely due to common concerns over Iran.

The journalists were to visit Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, parliament and holy sites, among others, the foreign ministry said in a statement. The aim was to expose journalists "some of whom come from countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel - to Israeli positions on diplomatic and geopolitical issues," it added. Jordan, one of only two Arab countries along with Egypt that have diplomatic relations with Israel, was also participating. - AFP