JERUSALEM: Tens of thousands of Muslim worshippers gathered at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque for the first Friday prayers of Ramadan after COVID-19 lockdowns kept the sacred place off-limits last year.
More than 75,000 faithful, most of the Arab citizens of Israel, prayed at al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, and were angered by Israeli restrictions that denied access to West Bank Palestinians without Covid-19 vaccination documents.
Ramadan Friday prayers usually draw larger crowds that can reach up to 250,000 at al-Aqsa. Israeli police tightened security at the flashpoint site, but prayers passed peacefully.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel also restricted the entry of Palestinians from the West Bank, allowing only 10,000 of those holding authorization into Jerusalem, and only if they were fully vaccinated. The limitations by Israeli authorities were criticized by Palestinian officials.
The Friday prayers leader Ikrima Sabri accused Israel of “exploiting the COVID-19 plague to interfere in the affairs of the blessed Aqsa mosque. On the other hand, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said Israel turned Jerusalem’s Old City into a military base.
Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians issued a statement stated, the steps are being taken to allow freedom of worship and religion on one hand, and on the other hand, prevent to the extent possible the spread of Covid-19 in the region.
Al Aqsa Mosque is one of the most sensitive sites in the Middle East conflict. It sits atop the Old City plateau known to Muslims worldwide as Al-Haram Al-Sharif, or The Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as Har ha-Bayit or Temple Mount.
Israel captured and occupied it along with the rest of East Jerusalem in a 1967 war, later annexing it. In spite of the tensions, Friday’s prayers passed without severe incident, as Jerusalem shows signals of returning to normal after a year of the COVID-19 lockdowns and limitations.