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Tension Overshadows Ramadan Prayers in Jerusalem

In Israel, tension overshadowed the first Friday prayers for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. As Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, the focal point of the latest tensions was the Al Aksa Mosque.

Hundreds of Israeli police and soldiers patrolled the narrow alleyways of Jerusalem's Old City, as Palestinians gathered for Ramadan prayers at the Al Aksa Mosque, a site that Jews call the Temple Mount because two biblical Temples were located there. As the holiest place in Judaism and third holiest in Islam, it is frequently a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Fearing Palestinian unrest, all Muslim men under the age of 45, and women under 35, were barred from entering the compound.

Israeli troops also deployed at two major West Bank checkpoints, near Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem in the south and Ramallah in the north. Hundreds of Palestinians gathered there hoping to get to the mosque in Jerusalem.

Scuffles broke out when most were turned back by soldiers.

One of the Palestinians, Mustafa Habib, told VOA that Israel is violating freedom of worship.

"We want the Israelis, you know, to ease the situation, relax the measures and the restrictions against our people, give us a break," he said.

Israel says the restrictions are necessary to stop suicide bombers from entering the country and prevent Palestinian riots at the Al Aksa Mosque.

In the end, about 40,000 Palestinians entered the Mosque of Al Aksa, a quarter of the usual number for Friday prayers during Ramadan. The prayers passed quietly.