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Orthodox Jews battle police

Violent protests broke out Saturday as thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews tried to block a main street as part of an increasingly bitter dispute between religious and secular Israelis.

The demonstrations, which began overnight and resumed Saturday evening, included clashes with some of the 2,500 riot police officers who took up positions in one of Jerusalem's most Orthodox neighborhoods in an effort to quell rising tensions over the observance of the Jewish Sabbath.

The ultra-Orthodox residents who form the large majority of the neighborhood's population have demanded that the street, Bar-Ilan Street, be closed to traffic for the duration of the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

But opponents say that would isolate nearby neighborhoods and force Jerusalem's secular majority to submit to the wishes of a group that makes up about 30 percent of the city's population.

As members of the militantly secular Meretz Party gathered by the hundreds for a counter-demonstration Saturday evening, more than 10,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews packed sidewalks and streets adjoining the street to disrupt and block traffic.

Some of them clashed with the police, who formed a barrier between the groups and who included reinforcements from a security branch whose usual mission is to maintain order in Israeli-controlled sectors of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Two protesters were arrested and several cars were damaged in the melee. Police officers repeatedly had to clear metal spikes and other obstacles thrown into the street in an attempt to halt traffic.

The gathering was larger and more violent than a similar demonstration last weekend, and organizers from both sides said they planned to return when the Sabbath begins again Friday night.

"We're talking about a culture war in Jerusalem," said Arie Amit, chief of police for the district that includes the city. "The police do all they can to keep it quiet, but we don't always succeed."

Ornan Yekutieli, a City Council member from the Meretz Party, said his forces were determined to keep the street open. "You can't give in at any step," he said. "If we give up our struggle over Bar-Ilan, they will take over 25 or 30 more streets."

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