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Tight Restrictions on Ramadan

December 22, 2000

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Scuffles and stone-throwing broke out Friday as Palestinian worshippers were turned away from Jerusalem’s walled Old City on the most important prayer day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. At least one Palestinian was hurt and another arrested.

Palestinian officials, meanwhile, took a wait-and-see attitude about peace talks in Washington, where President Clinton presented the two sides with a proposed outline for a treaty. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat told reporters in the Gaza Strip that ``no final result has come.″

Asked if a deal were close, he replied: ``We hope so.″

In Jerusalem, Israeli police and soldiers clamped tight security on the city for the final Friday of Ramadan. More than 3,000 police and soldiers were on patrol in traditionally Arab east Jerusalem.

Police briefly evacuated the broad plaza fronting the Western Wall after a few stones were thrown at Jewish worshippers from the Al Aqsa mosque compound above.

At the Damascus Gate leading into the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, scuffles broke out as Israeli troops manning a barricade checked Palestinians’ identity cards. One mounted policeman fell off his horse and was stoned by the crowd, but managed to get back in the saddle.

Tight restrictions on access to the Old City have been in effect on most Fridays during the 3-month-old Palestinian uprising, when the week’s main prayers have often boiled over into confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli troops.

Only Palestinians over the age of 45 _ or over 35, if they live in Jerusalem _ were allowed into the Old City on Friday. Other would-be worshippers were turned away at roadblocks outside Jerusalem.

Many men spread out rugs and prayer mats just outside the Damascus Gate.

``I’ll pray at the gate,″ said Idris Abu-Turki, 21, who traveled from the West Bank town of Hebron. ``I passed all the checkpoints today to come and pray this last Friday here.″

In Hebron, military authorities lifted a curfew that has been in effect almost continuously since late September. The town’s main mosque was open for the first time since the violence began, although security was heavy.

Meanwhile, Jewish settlers demanded a halt to talks with the Palestinians after an Israeli motorist was shot dead in an ambush late Thursday in the West Bank. The shooting took place near the settlement of Givat Zeev, north of Jerusalem, on a main highway.

``The Washington talks must be stopped immediately, and it must be made clear to Arafat that he will achieve nothing through violence, and negotiations must not be conducted under fire,″ said settler spokesman Yehoshua Mor-Yosef.

The motorist, identified as Eliahu Cohen, 30, from the Israeli town of Modiin, died at the scene. In recent weeks, drive-by shootings and roadside ambushes have made travel in the West Bank extremely dangerous for Israelis.

A total of 339 people have died since the conflict flared up, the vast majority of them Palestinians.

At the Washington talks, both sides are weighing proposals presented by President Clinton. Delegates from both sides have said a possible compromise is emerging on the sensitive issue of Jerusalem, which Israel and the Palestinians both claim as their capital.

``The intent to make progress is there,″ Arafat aide Nabil Shaath told reporters in Gaza. He said an assessment when the Palestinian delegation returned in two days. Palestinian sources said Arafat would take a call from the Palestinian delegation during a meeting of the Palestinian Cabinet on Friday night.

The talks in Washington came as the election picture in Israel was clearing up. On Thursday, defeat-prone elder statesman Shimon Peres dropped out of Israel’s race for prime minister, leaving incumbent Ehud Barak and his hawkish rival Ariel Sharon to face each other in a Feb. 6 election.

Peres, 77, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 and is respected abroad, but he has been unable to translate his prestige into electoral power at home. His effort to challenge Barak as leader of the pro-peace camp’s campaign against Sharon failed when the dovish Meretz party refused to give him its nomination.

Looking sad and weary, Peres admitted defeat.

``I thought that in order to prevent the election of Sharon we need another step. They didn’t allow it, it’s a democratic country, and I accept the decision,″ he said. ``I will continue to work for peace.″

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