Palestinians pour into Jerusalem for Friday Ramadhan prayers

Jerusalem: Tens of thousands of Palestinians poured into Jerusalem to attend the first Friday prayers of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan at the Al Aqsa mosque compound, Islam’s third-holiest site, under heavy Israeli security.
Many had queued from before dawn at the Israeli checkpoints that control access to annexed east Jerusalem from the rest of the occupied West Bank, AFP correspondents said.
Armed police reinforcements were deployed across Jerusalem’s Old City to provide security around the ultra-sensitive mosque compound, which is also Judaism’s holiest site. Helicopters flew overhead and most of the roads leading to the site were closed to traffic.
The foundation that administers the site said 250,000 people had joined the prayers while Israeli police put the number of worshippers at 100,000.
Israel had loosened a number of restrictions ahead of Ramadhan, which began on Saturday, to enable easier travel from the West Bank to Israel for Friday prayers and family visits.
Women of all ages and men over 40 do not need entry permits in order to access Jerusalem for Friday prayers. Israel also allowed 100 men and women over the age of 55 from Gaza to enter Jerusalem to pray, police said.
Abdeljawad Najjar, 61, from the northern West Bank city of Nablus, was among those queueing at the Qalandia checkpoint north of Jerusalem.
“It is a religious obligation to pray at Al Aqsa, regardless of the difficulties and obstacles,” he said.
Kefaya Shrideh, 40, also from Nablus, voiced the concern, shared by many Palestinians, that far-right members of Israel’s governing coalition might seek to change the longstanding rules governing the mosque compound, under which Jews can visit but not pray.
“It is important for us to pray at Al Aqsa and not to forsake it, because we are afraid the Jews will take it,” she said. Israeli police had planned to mobilise thousands of female and male officers to deal with the expected influx.
The Old City “has become a military camp”, said 62-year-old Ibrahim, who declined to give his surname.
Nevertheless, he said, “we are happy because we can only visit Jerusalem four times a year, during the Fridays of Ramadhan”, he added. — AFP