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Israel On Alert As Ramadan Starts

Police sent reinforcements into Jerusalem on Friday for the start of the holy month of Ramadan, while a hard-line Israeli Cabinet minister said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's offer of a Palestinian state was not serious.

In the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin, about 2,000 Palestinians marched on a local police station, demanding the release of a leading Islamic militant, Mahmoud Tawalbi, who is suspected of having masterminded several suicide attacks in Israel.

Friday's protest was peaceful, though in several confrontations with Palestinian security forces earlier this week, demonstrators threw stones and grenades and fired in the air. There have been no injuries, and the suspect remains in custody.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, hundreds of Palestinians marched after Ramadan prayers to an Israeli checkpoint, throwing stones and chanting — in Hebrew — "Sharon, Sharon, there is no security." Israel troops fired tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets toward the crowd.

In Jerusalem, about 20,000 Muslim worshippers prayed in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound on the first Friday of Ramadan, said mosque director Mohammed Husseini. More than 2,000 Israeli police patrolled the area, and there were no disturbances.

Husseini complained that Israeli roadblocks prevented thousands of worshippers from reaching the holy site.

Jerusalem Police Chief Mickey Levy said police permitted older Palestinians from the West Bank to enter the city, despite an ongoing security closure.

Ahmed Tamari, 35, was held back by troops at a checkpoint north of biblical Bethlehem. Tamari said he would sneak around the roadblock. "My spirits are high, I will pray in Jerusalem," he said.

Israeli authorities said they were easing internal travel restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza for the holiday, lifting roadblocks in place during most of the year of fighting. Military official Arieh Spitzen said Israel was taking security risks "to allow normal life during this holy month."

In a message for Ramadan, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the militant Hamas group, called on his followers fight against Israel "until victory or martyrdom." Yassin wrote that jihad (holy war) is an obligation "to liberate our countries and ourselves from occupiers, aggressors and tyrants," charging Israel and the United States with waging a war of terrorism against Muslims.


Learn more about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.


In violence Friday, Israeli police shot and killed a Palestinian in central Israel, and Israeli tanks moved briefly into Palestinian areas in Gaza.

Operating on intelligence reports, police converged on an orchard near the Israeli city of Ramle, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, said police spokesman Gil Kleiman. They started pursuing two Palestinians, opening fie, killing one and wounding the other. Kleiman said the two were in Israel illegally, while Israel Radio reported that the two were suspected of planning a terror attack.

In Gaza, Israeli tanks entered Palestinian territory in two places, Palestinian security officials said. In northern Gaza, they leveled farmland, and near the Karni crossing in central Gaza, they destroyed a Palestinian police post, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

Also Friday, Israeli Environment Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, from Sharon's Likud party, said Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres should be fired for telling the U.N. General Assembly in Thursday that in Israel, "there is support for a Palestinian independence, support for a Palestinian state."

Responding to a Peres retort that Sharon himself offered the Palestinians a state, Hanegbi indicated that Sharon's offer was not made in good faith, because it was "tied to a series of conditions that the Palestinians have not accepted and cannot accept."

Interviewed on Israel Radio before returning home Friday, Peres warned that the alternative to an independent Palestinian state would be "an Arab majority in a binational state" in place of predominantly Jewish Israel.

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