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Israel puts tight restrictions on Ramadan prayers

Saturday, November 1, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Israeli troops scuffled Friday with Muslim worshippers making their way to Jerusalem from the West Bank for special prayers during the holy month of Ramadan, injuring one Palestinian.

The trouble came as Israel imposed tight rules on who could attend the prayers, which are held at a disputed site known as the Temple Mount to Jews and Haram as-Sharif to Muslims. Authorities put age restrictions in place to weed out the young.

Also Friday, the United States offered a $5 million reward in the investigation of a deadly bombing of a U.S. convoy in Gaza.

About 175,000 Palestinians flocked to the sacred hilltop plaza for Ramadan prayers, while others were turned away at army checkpoints. Control over the site, revered by Muslims and Jews, is one of the most hotly contested issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Muslims revere the plaza as the site where the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. It is Judaism's holiest site, marking the spot where two biblical Jewish temples, destroyed by invading armies, were located.

A trip to the compound in September 2000 by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- then Israel's opposition leader -- to demonstrate Israeli claims to the site set off days of rioting that widened into the current fighting.

Visitors limited

Fearing youths would provoke clashes, police limited visitors from outside Jerusalem to older, married Palestinians. Men had to be older than 45, and women at least 35, said Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby. Police set the quota at 4,000 from the West Bank and 1,000 from the Gaza Strip.

No age limits were imposed on Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.

Friday's scuffle occurred near Bethlehem after soldiers prevented a few hundred worshippers from entering Jerusalem, several miles away, and some tried to push and shove their way through a checkpoint. Troops fired a stun grenade, setting off a loud blast. One Palestinian was reported lightly injured.

Asked about the scuffles, the military said that Palestinian officials in the city had not provided lists of names of worshippers. The army said soldiers needed the lists to screen for possible security risks.

Israel has been enforcing a strict travel ban in the past three years of fighting, preventing most Palestinians from reaching Israel. Age restrictions are imposed from time to time on visitors to the Jerusalem holy site when the security situation in Israel is seen as particularly tense.

Reward offered

The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv said the U.S. State Department was offering a $5 million reward for information that helps find those behind a roadside bomb attack that destroyed a U.S. diplomatic vehicle and killed three American security guards.

The Oct. 15 attack in Gaza led the United States to suspend official travel to the coastal territory and has also set back U.S. involvement in peace efforts.

Also Friday, vandals spray-painted graffiti on a memorial for slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a day before crowds are to gather at the Tel Aviv plaza where he was shot during a 1995 peace rally by an extremist Jew.

Workers used high-pressure water sprayers to clean white paint from the black memorial stones and plaque.

In Gaza City, hundreds of supporters of the militant group Islamic Jihad marked the anniversary of the death of the group's leader Fathi Shakaki, who was killed by gunmen in Malta in 1995. Israel was believed to be responsible for the killing.

Dozens of masked activists in camouflage marched in front of the crowd, some of them holding assault rifles and hand grenades. A giant Israeli flag was draped on the ground as activists stamped across the parade area. Other masked marchers wore black T-shirts with pictures of Shakaki.


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