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Palestinians prepared for a general strike today and Israeli forces were on alert after at least four people were killed in the worst clashes in the region in years.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was due to visit Cairo today to brief Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on two days of clashes at the bitterly contested Temple Mount or al-Haram al-Sharif in which more than 200 people were hurt.

A Palestinian policeman shot dead an Israeli soldier in the West Bank during the violence that cast a cloud over the faltering peace process that aims to end 52 years of conflict between the two sides.

Israel barred its citizens from entering Palestinian-ruled areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the trouble flared.

Israeli police reported a number of isolated incidents of Palestinians throwing stones and firing at their forces in East Jerusalem and the West Bank late on Friday. They said they had fired rubber-coated metal bullets to disperse the protesters.

They said they had stormed the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's walled Old City and fired rubber-coated bullets after Palestinian youths had hurled stones at Jewish worshipers praying at the Western Wall below.

The mosque compound, a site sacred to Muslims and Jews, is part of East Jerusalem, which Israel captured and annexed in the 1967 Middle East war in a move not recognized internationally.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of the independent state they plan to declare.

The 36-acre walled shrine is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, site of their former biblical Temple, Judaism's holiest site. To Muslims, it is al-Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, home to two major mosques that mark the spot where tradition says the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Israeli police said the Palestinian protesters were goaded to acting violently during an afternoon prayer sermon.

Palestinians put the blame on the Israeli authorities' heavy-handed show of force and a controversial visit to the holy site by Israeli right-wing leader Ariel Sharon, which sparked clashes that injured about 30 people on Thursday.

The United States, which is trying to mediate a peace deal, also put some of the blame on Sharon.

"We . . . were quite concerned that the visit by Sharon to this site risked creating tensions, and in fact it did," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Doctors at Jerusalem hospitals reported four deaths and said they had treated more than 200 wounded.

They said some of the injured had been hit by live ammunition, but Israeli police chief Yehuda Wilk denied that live bullets had been used.

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