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Israel Restricts Access to Muslim Friday Prayers - 2004-03-26

Israeli police are restricting access to Muslim Friday prayers at Jerusalem's holiest shrine this week. The move comes amid heightened fears of unrest and possible retaliatory attacks by Palestinian militants for Monday's killing of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in an Israeli missile strike.

Israeli police said that men wishing to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City Friday would have to be over the age of 45 and hold proper Israeli identification cards. Women were not subject to the restrictions. Police presence in the Old City was also increased substantially.

The compound is home to the al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques, and is one of Islam's holiest sites. The same area is sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount. It has been the site of numerous clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in the past, and the police often restrict access to the mosque compound to try to avert violence.

Israel has been on heightened alert for possible violence and suicide attacks since Monday's targeted assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin.

Hamas and other militant groups have vowed massive retaliation. On Thursday, Israeli troops killed two Palestinian militants who came ashore and fired at an army post near the Jewish settlement of Tel Katifa in the Gaza Strip. Hamas took responsibility for the attack and vowed others would follow.

While Israelis are bracing for more violence, some members of the Israeli security services seem to believe that any major upsurge by Hamas is unlikely. The Ha'aretz newspaper quotes defense experts, including an official from the Shin Beit security service, as saying they believe Hamas has reached the limit of what it can do. They say that while the group is expected to continue to mount attacks, they do not see it as massively stepping up its operations.