Ammar Awad & Sinan Abu Mayzer
Reuters / March 24, 2023
JERUSALEM – Tens of thousands of Muslim worshippers flocked to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque on the first Friday of Ramadan for noon prayers, which passed peacefully amid tight security imposed after months of escalating tension and violence.
“I cannot describe to you how happy I am to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque. I’m 50 years old and they only recently removed the security ban that had prevented me from coming here,” said Nasser Abu Saleh, a resident of the West Bank city of Hebron.
The mosque complex, a site holy to both Muslims and Jews, who know it as the Temple Mount, has a long history of confrontation, including incidents in 2021 that helped spark a 10-day war between Israel and Gaza’s ruling Islamist movement Hamas.
Worshippers streamed into the mosque, located in Jerusalem’s walled Old City, during the day after Israel announced on Monday that it would allow Palestinian men over 55, women of all ages and children under 12 to travel from the occupied West Bank to enter Jerusalem without military-issued permits.
The Muslim Waqf, custodians who manage the site which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, said around 100,000 people had visited for the first Friday prayers of Ramadan.
At noon prayers worshippers standing shoulder to shoulder packed the compound, which also houses the golden Dome of the Rock where the Prophet Mohammad is said to have ascended to heaven.
Major General Ghassan Aliyan of COGAT, a unit in the Israeli Defence ministry that coordinates civilian issues with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, said Israeli authorities were doing all they could to prevent any trouble.
“All parties are interested in seeing the month of Ramadan pass peacefully in every way,” he said.
On Sunday, Israeli and Palestinian officials made commitments to de-escalate violence, at a meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh.
The West Bank has seen a surge of confrontations in recent months, with near-daily Israeli military raids and escalating violence by Jewish settlers, amid a spate of attacks by Palestinians.
Israeli security forces have been on high alert and the police said it deployed thousands of officers across Jerusalem on Friday.
During Ramadan, which in Israel and the Palestinian territories began Thursday and lasts a month, Muslims refrain from eating and drinking during daylight hours.
It coincides partly this year with Judaism’s Passover and Christian Easter, raising concerns about a repeat of violent clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians seen in previous years.
In recent years, the Palestinians and Arab governments have stressed the need to maintain a decades-old status quo that bans non-Muslim worship at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, following accusations that Israel was allowing Jews to pray at the site. Israel says there has been no change to the status quo.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, where the Old City is located, in a 1967 war and later annexed it in a move not recognised internationally. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Writing by Henriette Chacar; editing by James Mackenzie and Alistair Bell