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ISRAELI POLICE BLOCK JEWISH EXTREMISTS FROM SHRINE

Thousands of Israeli police threw a tight cordon around Jerusalem's Old City on Sunday, blocking ultra-nationalist Jews from reaching a disputed holy site that is the most sensitive flash point of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Despite high tension and a brief clash between Muslim protesters and riot police, the day passed without major incident. Police said 31 Israelis and seven Palestinians were arrested.

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian militants kept up a barrage of mortar fire on Jewish settlements and army positions in response to the killings Saturday of three youths by troops in the Rafah refugee camp.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, on a plane taking him to a meeting today with President Bush, called the mortar attacks "a flagrant violation of the understandings" reached with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a summit meeting in February, in which the two sides declared a truce.

"This will be a central issue to be raised in my talks with President Bush," Sharon said.

Abbas said the deaths of the three teens constituted a violation of the truce. "We will not accept our children being killed this way," he said.

The huge police deployment in Jerusalem was prompted by a call by a little-known far-right Jewish group, Revava, for a visit Sunday by 10,000 people to the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

The area is revered by Jews as the site of the two ancient Jewish temples and also contains Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest Muslim shrine. According to Muslim tradition, the area is where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

The call for a mass visit was widely seen as an attempt by Jewish extremists to escalate tensions and possibly precipitate violence that would scuttle a planned Israeli withdrawal this summer from the Gaza Strip.

Muslim leaders urged their followers to defend Al-Aqsa, and hundreds of people flocked to the shrine, sleeping Saturday night in the mosque compound.

A visit to the compound in September 2000 by Sharon, then the leader of the parliamentary opposition, triggered clashes that escalated into more than four years of deadly violence. Israeli police commissioner Moshe Karadi said his forces were taking no chances Sunday.

"Israel's police do not have the option of playing games," he said.

Police officers, many of them in riot gear, were posted on approach roads, at gates of the walled Old City and at checkpoints inside to prevent Jewish demonstrators and Arab youths from reaching the Al-Aqsa compound.

In the end only a few dozen rightist Jews tried to reach the site, and were scattered by police. David Haivry, a leader of Revava, was detained for questioning.

Four right-wing Israeli legislators were prevented by police officers from visiting the shrine area, although members of parliament usually have freedom of movement.

Yisrael Cohen, a leader of Revava, denied the group's action was a trial run for efforts to disrupt the planned evacuation of Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip this summer by diverting police forces to Jerusalem.

"There is freedom of religion in a democratic state, and there is no reason for us to be discriminated against on religious grounds," he told Israel Radio.

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