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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israel Police Thwart Arafat's Call to Pray

JERUSALEM -- Some 15,000 Palestinians, or less than usual, prayed at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque on Friday despite a call by Yasser Arafat that worshippers flock to the shrine in large numbers to protest against Israel's hardline policies.


Moslem clerics blamed the low turnout on Israeli troops who set up roadblocks around Jerusalem and in the West Bank on Friday, turning away Palestinians who tried to reach Jerusalem. Police said they did not keep away anyone who had a permit to enter Israel.


Arafat's call to prayer -- his second showdown with Israel's hardline government in two days -- was meant to underscore the Palestinians' claims to east Jerusalem as a future capital.


It was also intended to test Israel's contention that it ensures freedom of worship in the city sacred to Jews, Moslems and Christians.


Under Israel's six-month closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, most Palestinians are barred from Jerusalem, including Al Aqsa, Islam's third-holiest shrine.


On Friday, some 2,000 Israeli police were deployed throughout east Jerusalem, including 1,000 officers called in as backup.


Police closed roads in Jerusalem's walled Old City, where the mosque compound is located, to cars. Officers in Jerusalem as well as soldiers in the West Bank set up dozens of new roadblocks to keep Palestinians from the city.


Many West Bank Palestinians headed for Jerusalem on Friday were turned back before they reached the city's outskirts.


Along the Hebron-Jerusalem highway, about 20 kilometers south of Jerusalem, soldiers manning a surprise checkpoint turned back northbound Palestinian motorists with Hebron identity cards.


One driver, Mohammed Abu Sneineh, a clothes merchant from Hebron, said he had intended to observe Arafat's call to prayer. He said he and others turned back were not discouraged.


"We will find our way to get to Jerusalem and to defend Jerusalem," he said. "I think the battle for Jerusalem has started. It is not only for us as Palestinians, but for all Arabs and Moslems."


In the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras el-Amud, about half a kilometer from the Al Aqsa Mosque, Israeli police turned away not only West Bank residents, but also those with Jerusalem identity cards who usually can move freely. In the Gaza Strip, several dozen Palestinians barred from entering Israel knelt in prayer on green plastic mats along a roadside near the Morag junction at the southern end of the strip.


Both police and Moslem clerics had predicted that about 100,000 Moslems would pray on Al Aqsa on Friday. On a normal Friday, between 20,000 and 30,000 worshippers come to the mosque.


In the end, about 15,000 worshippers reached Al Aqsa.


"What we have seen today is that freedom of worship is not being respected," said Faisal Husseini, a member of the PLO Executive Committee who is responsible for Palestinian policy in Jerusalem.