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Showdown fear as Israelis block march on Jerusalem

Palestinian and Israelis were precariously poised last night between confrontation and peace-making. Urgent consultations were continuing backstage to prevent a showdown in the wake of Yasser Arafat's charge that the right- wing Likud government had "declared war" on the Palestinians.

Israel reinforced its guards to block thousands of West Bank Muslims from marching on Jerusalem today to worship at Al Aqsa Mosque, the third most holy in Islam and a symbol of Palestinian national identity. The old Green-Line border has been closed to most Palestinians since the suicide bombings in February and March.

Mr Arafat on Wednesday urged his people to defy the ban, in protest at Israeli foot-dragging in the peace process. Palestinian spokesmen repeated the call yesterday, in spite of Israeli appeals to think again.

Saeb Erakat, the Palestinian local government minister, said: "I think people should be entitled to worship in Jerusalem and the holy places of Muslims and Christians.

"We've been urging the Israeli government to lift the siege on Jerusalem and let people conduct their religious duties as normally as possible."

Hanan Ashrawi, the higher education minister, who represents Jerusalem in the Palestinian Legislative Council, blamed Israel for adopting an "aggressive and violent way." She added: "People have the right to go through and to reach the mosque."

Dr Ashrawi, a Christian, said if they were stopped, they would conduct mass prayers at the checkpoints. But the prospect of a more volatile scenario increased last night when Israel revealed that Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the jailed founder of the fundamentalist Hamas movement in Gaza, had been taken to hospital after falling ill. It was announced later that the militant preacher had returned to his cell after medical checks.

The Palestinians were further incensed yesterday by the news that Benjamin Netanyahu's government has authorised the construction of 2,000 more homes in existing West Bank settlements close to Jerusalem.

The work was approved under the last Labour administration, but was frozen so as not to jeopardise peace negotiations. Earlier in the week, the government approved an extra 900 homes for an ultra-Orthodox new town just across the Green Line.

The first half of Mr Arafat's protest passed peacefully yesterday. Shops, offices and businesses closed for four hours throughout the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. In some villages, the strike was enforced by Palestinian security men.

In Hebron,the last West Bank town still under Israeli occupation, a shopkeeper, Abed Nasser Adin, said: "It is our battle for Jerusalem, and I think it is now or never."

But as soon as the strike was over, the heads of delegation for the next round of Israeli-Palestinian talks met in a West Jerusalem hotel and agreed to begin negotiations next week. The teams will meet daily but an Israeli spokesman said last night that no day had been set for the opening session.

A more conciliatory Saeb Erakat, who leads the Palestinian team, said: "We look forward, as Palestinians and Israelis, for a message to save the peace process."

His opposite number, former general Dan Shomron, added: "There was recognition on both sides that we have to work out misunderstandings. We shall have continuous meetings, and the issues will be placed on the table. I think not only the atmosphere, but concrete advances in the future, will play a part in lowering the tension."