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Thousands of Palestinians Observe Ramadan in Jerusalem - 2001-11-16


Tens of thousands of Palestinians have prayed at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan amid heavy security.

As the call to prayer sounded over Jerusalem's Old City, Muslims poured into the Al-Aqsa Mosque and prayed in the plaza that also houses the Dome of the Rock. Two thousand Israeli police provided security in and around Jerusalem, as Muslims made their way to the Old City at the start of Ramadan.

For the first time in months, police allowed some Palestinians from the West Bank to pray at the mosque, Islam's third holiest site. However, Muslim leaders complained that Israeli roadblocks kept many worshippers from reaching the city.

At a crossing point between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Israeli security forces briefly blocked the road, but eventually allowed older Palestinians to pass. Younger men were kept from going through the checkpoint. After prayers, the crowd dispersed peacefully.

The current Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation erupted in September of last year after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was then the opposition leader, visited the Al-Aqsa site.

Palestinians considered the move a major provocation.

Israeli authorities say they are easing travel restrictions in the Palestinian territories during Ramadan, including lifting some roadblocks that have been in place during more than 13 months of fighting.

Palestinians are demanding the closure be completely lifted, saying it amounts to collective punishment and is destroying the Palestinian economy.

Meanwhile, Israeli police Friday tracked down a group of five Palestinians close to Tel Aviv. Police shot and killed one man and wounded another in an orange grove near the town of Ramle. The three other Palestinians were arrested.

Israeli radio reported the men were smuggled from the Gaza Strip and had entered Israel illegally. Police say they launched a manhunt after receiving intelligence information that the Palestinians may have been planning an attack on Israelis.

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