ISRAEL

Police restrict access to Jerusalem's Old City

Israeli police have restricted access to Jerusalem's Old City as Palestinians went on strike in defence of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound. Police have been seen turning back Palestinians who do not live or work there.

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AFP - Israeli police tightly restricted access to Jerusalem's Old City on Friday as Palestinians went on strike in defence of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound following clashes at the flashpoint site sacred to Muslims and Jews.

Several hundred Palestinians who were denied entry to the mosque performed Friday prayers just outside the gates of the Old City under the watchful eye of heavily armed Israeli police.

Security forces set checkpoints around and within the Old City and were seen turning back Palestinians who do not live or work there.

However, they were allowing in tourists and Jews wanting to pray at the Western Wall -- also known as the Wailing Wall -- just below the mosque compound.

Most stores in the Old City shut down, though some shop-owners grumbled about the strike.

"We need to strengthen our presence in Jerusalem, not weaken it," said sweets-seller Ramdan Abu Sbeeh, 32, who defied the strike call.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's secular Fatah party called the strike "to peacefully protest and to proclaim the attachment of the Palestinian people to their holy places and to Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the independent Palestinian state."

Fatah accused Israeli forces of allowing rightwing Jewish extremists to enter the mosque compound while denying access to Muslims.

"We have deployed thousands of people in Jerusalem and in the north of Israel following incitation by extremists," a senior police official told public radio.

Israeli police have accused the Islamic Movement of inciting tension and this week briefly detained its leader, Sheikh Raed Salah, whom they said had made "inflammatory statements."

Salah, who previously spent two years in Israeli prison, has repeatedly called in recent days for Muslims to "defend" Al-Aqsa against Israel.

Israel has imposed restrictions on access to the mosque compound following a series of clashes that started late last month. Only Muslim residents of east Jerusalem or Israel over the age of 50, with no restrictions for the women, were being allowed to attend Friday prayers.

Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki called on UN chief Ban Ki-moon Thursday to intervene to prevent Israel from further ratcheting up the tension in Jerusalem.

Malki said he briefed Ban on "Israeli escalation measures against the Palestinians in Jerusalem and the actions the Israelis have been taking in recent days against Al-Aqsa mosque."

The clashes broke out when Palestinians hurled stones at a group of visitors to the mosque compound they thought were rightwing Jews.

Police said the visitors were in fact French tourists, and responded by firing stun grenades.

The Al-Aqsa compound, known to Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as the Temple Mount, has often been a flashpoint of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

The second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, erupted there in September 2000 after a visit by Ariel Sharon, a rightwing politician who went on to   become Israeli prime minister the following year.

Analysts say tension is nowhere near what it was in 2000, but point out it could easily escalate.

"Perhaps Israel's assumption that the Palestinians are not interested in setting the West Bank on fire is accurate, but one soldier firing at stone-throwers, one demonstrator shooting at Israeli soldiers could turn the picture upside down," the Haaretz newspaper said in an editorial.

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