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Israel beefs up security for Yom Kippur holiday

Joe Dyke
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Thousands of Jews visit the Western Wall in east Jerusalem's Old City during Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, which ends on Wednesday evening

Thousands of Jews visit the Western Wall in east Jerusalem's Old City during Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, which ends on Wednesday evening (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

Jerusalem (AFP) - Israel boosted security and barred Palestinians from entering from the occupied West Bank or the Gaza Strip ahead of the solemn Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur that began Tuesday evening.

Thousands of Jews visit the Western Wall in east Jerusalem's Old City around Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, which ends on Wednesday evening.

The same measures were taken for last week's Rosh Hashanah holiday and will be imposed again for next week's Sukkot festival.

Last year's holiday period led to clashes and marked the start of an upsurge in Palestinian gun, knife and car-ramming attacks.

Israeli security forces are on especially high alert after a Palestinian gunman killed two people in Jerusalem on Sunday.

Israeli soldiers shot dead a 20-year-old Palestinian man, Ali Shiouki, after clashes broke out Tuesday in the Silwan area of east Jerusalem, according to Palestinian officials.

More than 3,000 police are being deployed in the city for Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, and police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said roadblocks had also been mounted.

On Monday night, tens of thousands of Jews crowded into the square around the Western Wall, Rosenfeld said.

Prayers led by Israel's two chief rabbis began shortly after midnight and continued until sunrise for some worshippers, in one of the largest Jewish ceremonies of the year.

Moshe Cohen, a 19-year-old from Jerusalem, said the ceremony was among the most important days in the Jewish calendar.

"You pray and you get free (of) all the bad things you do," he said. "You feel connected to God."

- Shooting rampage -

Cohen said he felt the number of faithful was roughly similar to last year. Rosenfeld did not provide a specific figure.

Many Palestinian shops in the Old City were closed.

Near the Lions' Gate entry to the Old City, used by many Palestinians, Israeli forces erected a temporary barrier stopping cars from going further.

Closures of the Palestinian territories are often put in place for major Jewish holidays.

This week's lockdown applies only to Palestinians and not the roughly 400,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

Gaza is always under an Israeli blockade, though some crossings are usually allowed for work or medical purposes.

Humanitarian and urgent medical cases will be allowed during the holiday, the army said.

Beyond visits to the Western Wall, the holidays also see more Jews visit the adjacent Al-Aqsa mosque compound.

The site is holy to both Muslims and Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount.

It is central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Palestinians fearing Israel may one day seek to assert further control over it.

On Sunday, a 39-year-old Palestinian who saw himself as an Al-Aqsa protector went on a shooting rampage in Jerusalem, killing two Israelis.

The attacker, Misbah Abu Sbeih, who was reportedly scheduled to begin a prison term on the same day, was killed by police after he fled into an east Jerusalem neighbourhood.

- Thwarted bus attack? -

Hamas welcomed the attack and said Abu Sbeih was a member, but did not claim responsibility for it.

Overnight the army sealed off a sweet shop owned by members of his family, saying it was affiliated with Hamas, police said.

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities announced they had arrested a Palestinian, Mohamed Joulani, last month on suspicion of planning a suicide attack on a bus in Pisgat Zeev, an Israeli settlement in east Jerusalem, on behalf of Hamas.

In addition, the army said it had demolished the West Bank home of a Palestinian sentenced to life in prison for shooting dead an Israeli couple in front of their children a year ago.

The home of Amjad Aliwi, a third-floor apartment in the West Bank city of Nablus, was blown up overnight, Palestinian police said.

The army says Aliwi was part of a Hamas cell responsible for the October 1, 2015 attack on the settler couple in the West Bank.

Israel regularly demolishes the homes of attackers in a bid to deter violence.

Palestinians and rights groups say the measure amounts to collective punishment since family members are forced to suffer for the acts of others.