Israel beefs up security for Ramadan prayers

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JERUSALEM, Sep 14 (Reuters) Israel tightened security around East Jerusalem and stopped thousands of West Bank Palestinians from praying at the revered al-Aqsa mosque on the first Friday of Ramadan.

This year the holy month of Ramadan coincided with the Jewish New Year holiday, a time when Israel normally blocks off access into the country from the occupied West Bank, raising concerns about possible tension at Jerusalem's holy sites.

Police and soldiers at checkpoints outside the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Bethlehem turned away thousands of Palestinians who were trying to reach the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem for Friday prayers, witnesses said.

Palestinian witnesses said only men over the age of 50 and women over 45 were allowed to travel to the holy site for noon prayers. No violence was reported.

An Israeli army spokesman was checking the report.

Inside Jerusalem, police erected road blocks around the old city, home to the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third holiest site, and to sites sacred to Jews and Christians, a Reuters witness said.

Palestinian Religious Affairs Minister Jamal Bawatneh said today in Ramallah that Israel's block on some Palestinians reaching al-Aqsa was tantamount to ''an assault against the dearest thing the believers have, which is the faith''.

Separately, a small Israeli ground force entered the southern Gaza Strip at dawn today, the army and local residents said.

Tensions between Israel and Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip in June after routing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah forces, have increased sharply in recent days following a rocket attack which wounded at least 35 soldiers.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage today.

An Israeli army spokesman confirmed military activity in the area against what he called ''terror threats''. Israeli forces frequently carry out operations in border areas.

Local residents said the Israeli force included tanks and other armoured vehicles.

Yesterday, at least one Islamic Jihad militant was injured when an Israeli missile struck a car in northern Gaza.

REUTERS SBC AS1830

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