Palestinians die in renewed clashes

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The Independent Online

Four Palestinians have been killed in fresh clashes with Israeli police in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Four Palestinians have been killed in fresh clashes with Israeli police in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It came as Israeli troops battled thousands of rock-throwers and several dozen gunmen in what the Palestinians billed as a "day of rage".

Israel attempted to head off new outbursts of fighting by sealing off Palestinian areas.

They also pulled back from a potentially explosive confrontation near a bitterly contested religious site in Jerusalem's Old City.

In a direct challenge to Israel's sovereignty claim, Palestinians raised their flag atop the Al Aqsa Mosque in the walled compound revered by Muslims and Jews.

Two Palestinians died in the West Bank city of Nablus, one died nearby in Tulkaram and one was shot dead in Gaza. Dozens also were injured.

Overall, 71 people have been killed and about 1,900 injured, most of them Palestinians, in nine days of fighting.

In Jerusalem, Israeli police fired tear gas at Palestinian stone throwers near a a mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, but Palestinian security forces intervened quickly to prevent that clash from escalating.

The trouble erupted almost immediately after some 8,000 worshippers poured out of the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Old City.

Plainclothes Palestinian security agents formed a line to block young men from throwing stones and exiting the compound in the direction of Israeli security forces.

Such cooperation at the emotionally charged site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, was unprecedented.

A week earlier, violent clashes broke out between Israeli forces and activists when there was no line of Palestinian forces between them.

Today, Palestinians left the compound through a separate exit and began clashing with Israeli policemen in the narrow streets of the Old City.

Dozens of youths, crouching behind stone slabs, tossed rocks at a small Israeli police post, only to be driven back by tear gas and rubber-coated bullets.

Eventually, the Israeli police withdrew from the area. Palestinian security moved in and tried to stop the stone throwing and disperse the crowd.

However, the protesters managed to set the police station aflame and renewed the clashes with Israeli police in streets nearby.

Ten policemen were injured, but Yair Itzhaki, the Jerusalem police commander, said the battle in the Old City could have been much worse.

"The concept of being wise rather than being strong proved itself today. If we had gone onto Temple Mount, it would have ended in bloodshed," Yitzhaki said.

Muslim worshippers also raised a Palestinian flag atop the Al Aqsa mosque in direct challenge to Israeli sovereignty claims over the compound.

"We have been ruling the mosque and its entrances, and we are trying to prevent the Israelis from entering the mosque another time," said Hatem Abdel Kader, a Palestinian legislator.

The decision by the Israeli police to keep away from sensitive areas in Jerusalem was immediately criticized by Israeli politicians, including allies of Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

"What were the people of the Palestinian Authority doing on the Temple Mount?" said Dan Meridor, a senior Israeli legislator.

"It is not theirs. This is what the political struggle (with the Palestinians) is all about."

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have broken down because of a dispute over who is in control over the holy shrine.

Muslims run the hilltop compound, the third holiest place in Islam, but Jews are allowed to visit the site, where once the biblical Jewish Temple stood, the holiest shrine of Judaism.

The latest round of violence began after right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon visited the compound last week to demonstrate that Israel was in control.

By sealing off the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel did manage to keep down the number of Muslims travelling from the volatile territories to Friday prayers at the Al Aqsa Mosque.

But large protest demonstrations quickly gathered steam in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In the West Bank town of Nablus, more than 7,000 protesters marched toward a junction manned by Israeli soldiers.

"Our blood is our way to Jerusalem," read one of the posters carried by marchers.

"I am going to attack the Israeli soldiers and the settlers," said Ahmed Yassin, a 20-year-old student.

"We have tried all the other ways with the Israelis."

In the Gaza Strip, more than 3,000 mourners attended the funeral of a Palestinian activist, brandishing Palestinian flags and shouting "God is great".

The Palestinian territories were closed before sunrise today and will remain sealed until sundown Monday, the end of Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and atonement and the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Israel often closes the territories during major holidays, but it did so early this time in response to the latest violence.

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