Sun, Nov 02, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Ramadan prayers in Jerusalem lead to minor scuffles

AP , JERUSALEM

Palestinians pray on the first Friday of the holy fasting month of Ramadan outside Alnaser Mosqe in the old city of Nablus on Friday against a backdrop of heightened Israeli security.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Israeli troops briefly scuffled with Muslim worshippers making their way to Jerusalem from the West Bank for special Friday prayers, lightly injuring one Palestinian.

Despite the tensions in the West Bank, the first Friday prayers celebrating the holy month of Ramadan proceeded without incident in Jerusalem.

In other news, the US offered a US$5 million reward in the investigation of a deadly bombing of a US convoy.

About 175,000 Palestinians flocked to the sacred hilltop plaza in Jerusalem 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.

The plaza of mosques, known by Muslims as the Haram as-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, is the third holiest place in Islam and is revered as the site where the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. It is also home to the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest site, where the two biblical Jewish temples, destroyed by invading armies, were situated.

A trip to the compound on Sept. 28, 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.

Fearing youths would provoke clashes with Israeli forces during Ramadan prayers, police allowed only older, married Palestinians to pray at the site on Friday. 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 restrictions were imposed on Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.

Friday's scuffle occurred near Bethlehem after soldiers prevented a few hundred worshippers from entering Jerusalem, several kilometers 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 injured.

Asked about the scuffles, the military said that Palestinian officials in the city had not provided lists of names of worshippers, preventing soldiers from allowing people past checkpoints. The army said soldiers needed to screen lists 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.

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

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. Saturday's ceremony is to mark the anniversary of his assassination by an extremist Jew opposed to his peace efforts.

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 machine guns and hand grenades. A giant Israeli flag was draped on the ground as activists stamped across the parade area.

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