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Israel closes temple wall to worshipers

In an unprecedented move, Israeli police on Friday closed the plaza in front of Judaism's holiest site _ the Western Wall of the Jews' ancient temple _ fearing Palestinians from the neighboring Al Aqsa Mosque would attack Jewish worshipers in revenge for the massacre of Muslims in Hebron last week.

The police also sharply restricted access to Al Aqsa, permitting only Jerusalem residents older than 40 to enter for midday prayers. Fewer than 20,000 people, a tenth the normal number, were allowed in to pray.

With more than 1,000 police and soldiers saturating Jerusalem's walled Old City, surrounding the religious complexes and filling the adjacent maze of streets and alleys, the services at Al Aqsa passed peacefully with no repeat of last week's stone-throwing confrontations and the serious casualties and deaths that resulted.

But four Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops and settlers elsewhere:

Israeli soldiers shot dead two Palestinians in clashes in Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus, north of Jerusalem, according to Palestinians, after protests over the apparent attack by Jewish settlers on the camp's outskirts overnight.

In the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian stabbed and wounded two Jewish settlers, one of whom then shot him dead, the Israeli military said.

In Gaza City, troops killed a man they said had tried to stab one of them.

Israeli authorities had feared violence Friday marking a week since a Jewish settler had gunned down at least 39 Muslims while they prayed in a Hebron mosque.

Clashes continued in the Hebron area Friday. But security forces were deployed in increased strength through most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as in Jerusalem, to smother any trouble.

The police actions in limiting access to the Western Wall and Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem drew sharp criticism.

Israelis accused Police Commissioner Rafi Peled of yielding to the threat of violence and effectively ceding Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall, sometimes called the Wailing Wall. It is believed to be the only remaining structure from the temple built by King Herod and destroyed by the Romans. Known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount, the area has long been a focus of Arab-Israeli strife.

The courtyard in front of the wall was closed from noon to 1

p.m., the peak hour of prayer for the Muslims who gathered on the opposite side.

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