Tight restrictions on last Friday of Ramadan as talks falter

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The Independent Online

Angry scuffles broke out today 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.

Angry scuffles broke out today 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, said the peace talks in Washington were "in crisis", with the delegations almost coming to blows.

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.

The tight restrictions have been in effect for most of the 3-month-old Palestinian uprising, when Friday 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 to pray at the Al Aqsa mosque compound, Islam's third-holiest shrine. Other would-be worshippers were turned away at roadblocks outside Jerusalem.

At the Damascus Gate leading into the Old City's Muslim Quarter. Israeli police and soldiers set up barricades, checking Palestinians' identity cards, and other policemen patrolled on horseback. "It's the last Friday - let them pray," an elderly Palestinian woman in a headscarf called out to the soldiers.

Many men spread out rugs and prayer mats just outside the police lines.

"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.

At the Washington talks, both sides are weighing proposals presented by U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Palestinian sources said Arafat would take a call from the Palestinian delegation during a meeting of the Palestinian Cabinet tonight.

Twelve weeks of Israeli-Palestinian fighting have taken the lives of 339 people, most of them Palestinians. In less than three months, the death toll has surpassed the number killed during the entire first year of the 1987-93 Palestinian uprising.

The increased death toll reflects use of greater firepower on both sides. Throughout the unrest, Palestinian gunmen have fired on Israeli troops and Jewish settlers, drawing a heavy Israeli response, including machine guns, tanks and attack helicopters.

In the first uprising, Palestinians mainly wielded rocks and firebombs, and Israelis generally responded with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets.

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