Israel Restricts Mosque Access During Ramadan

Israel limited access of Muslim worshippers to a disputed shrine for special Friday prayers during the holy month of Ramadan (search), setting off an angry scuffle, while the United States offered a $5 million reward in the investigation of a deadly bombing of a U.S. convoy.

About 175,000 Palestinians flocked to the sacred hilltop plaza in Jerusalem for Ramadan prayers, while others were turned away at army checkpoints. Control over the site, revered by Muslims and Jews, is one of the most hotly contested issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, soldiers prevented a few hundred worshippers from entering Jerusalem and some tried to push and shove their way through. Troops fired a stun grenade, setting off a loud blast. One Palestinian was reported slightly injured.

Israel has been enforcing a strict travel ban in the past three years of fighting, preventing most Palestinians from reaching Israel.

Fearing youths would provoke clashes with Israeli forces during Ramadan prayers, police were allowing only older, married Palestinians to pray at the site Friday. Men had to be older than 45, and women at least 35, said Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuelik Ben-Ruby. Police set the quota at 4,000 from the West Bank and 1,000 from the Gaza Strip (search).

No age restrictions were imposed on Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.

Asked about the scuffles at the Bethlehem checkpoint, the military said that Palestinian officials in the city had not provided lists of names of worshippers, preventing soldiers from allowing people past checkpoints. The army said soldiers needed to screen lists for possible security risks.

The Jerusalem compound overlooks the narrow alleys of the ancient walled city. A trip there in October 2000 by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) — then Israel's opposition leader — to demonstrate Israeli claims to the site set off days of rioting that widened into the current conflict.

The plaza of mosques, known by Muslims as the Haram as-Sharif (search), or Noble Sanctuary, is the third holiest place in Islam and is revered as the site where the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. It also is home to the Temple Mount (search), Judaism's holiest site, where the two biblical Jewish temples, destroyed by invading armies, were situated.

Also Friday, vandals spray-painted graffiti on a memorial for slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (search) a day before crowds are to gather at the Tel Aviv plaza where he was shot during a 1995 peace rally. Saturday's ceremony is to mark the anniversary of his assassination by an extremist Jew opposed to his peace efforts.

Workers used high-pressured water sprayers to clean white paint from the black memorial stones and plaque in the plaza.

Separately, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv said the State Department was offering a $5 million reward for information that helps find those behind the roadside bomb attack that destroyed a U.S. diplomatic vehicle and killed three American security guards. The Oct. 15 attack in Gaza led the United States to suspend official travel to the coastal territory and has also set back U.S. involvement in peace efforts.

Elsewhere, several thousand supporters of the militant group Islamic Jihad (search) gathered in Gaza City to mark the anniversary of the death of the group's leader Fathi Shakaki, who was killed by gunmen in Malta in 1995. Israel was believed to be responsible for the killing.

Dozens of masked activists in camouflage marched in front of the crowd, some holding machine guns and hand grenades. A giant Israeli flag was draped on the ground as activists stamped across the parade area. Other masked marchers were black T-shirts with pictures of Shakaki.

Meanwhile, in a speech in Tel Aviv on Thursday night, Sharon said he was ready to negotiate with the new Palestinian prime minister at any time.

Israel previously indicated it would not talk with the new Palestinian government led by Ahmed Qureia (search) because that Cabinet was too closely associated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Palestinian reaction to Sharon's remarks was cool. Arafat adviser Nabil Abu Rdeneh said contacts already taking place between the two sides were not serious, and he demanded Israel pull its forces out of the West Bank and Gaza and stop construction of Jewish settlements in areas Palestinians want for a future state.

"We are looking for serious negotiations without aggression," he said.

Sharon, speaking at an economic forum, said the absence of a top-level dialogue between the two sides was due to Palestinian reluctance.

"The reason we don't have prime ministerial level contacts stems from the fact that Palestinians have requested time to allow the designated Palestinian prime minister to establish himself," Sharon said. "We are ready to enter negotiations at any time."

Qureia leads an emergency Cabinet appointed by Arafat with a one-month mandate that expires Nov. 4. Arafat has asked Qureia to form a full Cabinet by then, but Qureia has been unable to do so, partly because of serious disagreements with Arafat.

Israel and the United States are boycotting Arafat, charging that he is involved in Palestinian terrorism.