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Jerusalem calm during prayers

September 15, 2007|From Times Wire Services

JERUSALEM — Israel tightened security around Arab East Jerusalem and stopped thousands of West Bank Palestinians from praying at the revered Al Aqsa Mosque on the first Friday of Ramadan; no violence was reported.

This year the Muslim holy month of Ramadan coincided with the Jewish New Year holiday, when Israel normally blocks access into the country from the West Bank, raising concerns about possible tension at Jerusalem's holy sites.

Israel Radio said prayers at the mosque, which drew about 93,000 faithful, were without incident.

Israeli police and soldiers at checkpoints near the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem turned away thousands of Palestinians trying to go to Jerusalem for the Friday prayers, witnesses said.

At the checkpoint near Bethlehem, hundreds of Palestinians pushed up against police lines set up near the Israeli barrier, in this area a towering wall.

At one point, the crowd pushed through the police line. A woman crawled on her hands and knees, another fell to the ground as people behind her surged forward. Israeli troops shouted at people to get back.

In Jerusalem, police erected roadblocks around the walled Old City, home to the Al Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam's three holiest sites, and to sites sacred to Jews and Christians. Hundreds of Israeli police were deployed throughout the area.

Only men older than 45 and women older than 35, who had also obtained special permits, were allowed to enter the mosque, a police official said.

Palestinian Authority Religious Affairs Minister Jamal Bawatneh said in Ramallah that Israel's blocking some Palestinians from reaching Al Aqsa was "an assault against the dearest thing the believers have, which is the faith."

Friday prayers were also quiet in Gaza, despite simmering tensions between the ruling Hamas group and supporters of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party.

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