Thousands of Palestinians streamed to Al Aqsa mosque in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem on the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadhan, in the largest such gathering since the coronavirus pandemic.
Shaikh Azzam al Khatib, head of the Waqf Islamic affairs council, said an estimated 70,000 worshippers came in from Jerusalem, the Israeli-occupied West Bank and from Arab communities inside Israel.
Last Ramadhan, “they (Israeli authorities) did not allow anyone to enter Al Aqsa except for me”, he said.
COGAT, Israel’s military body that administers the West Bank, said 10,000 vaccinated Palestinians had been issued permits this year to enter Jerusalem for prayers.
Police shut down roads around Jerusalem as buses loaded with pilgrims drove in.
Inside Al Aqsa mosque, Palestinian men and women sat on the carpeted floor, reading the holy Quran.
As the prayers ended, worshippers walked out of the holy compound with folded prayer rugs slung over their shoulders.
Daoud Salhab, a 67-year-old from east Jerusalem, called it “a golden day” after last year’s Ramadhan non-event.
Another Jerusalem resident, Majd Abu Myyaly, 27, said he had received the vaccine against Covid-19 that has helped drive down infection rates in Israel.
However, his aunt in nearby Ramallah on the West Bank was refused an Israeli permit to enter Jerusalem to pray.
“It’s been difficult’’, he said. “Every Ramadhan, she gets permission, but not this year.”
Mustafa Abu Sway of the Waqf council said this year’s gathering was the largest since the Covid pandemic, but still far smaller than in previous years.
Worshippers were kept apart by social distancing measures on the sprawling plaza of the Al Aqsa mosque compound.
Inside, “we were able to pray shoulder-to-shoulder”, said Mohammed, a 34-year-old doctor.
The Muslim prayers on the first Friday of this year’s Ramadhan followed tensions in the city.
Israeli police spokesman Shimon Cohen said seven people were arrested overnight in Palestinian neighbourhoods near east Jerusalem’s Old City, home of the mosque.