Palestinians hold Aqsa prayers in largest gathering since Covid

By: AFP      Published: 07:27 PM, 16 Apr, 2021
Palestinians hold Aqsa prayers in largest gathering since Covid

Thousands of Palestinians streamed to Al-Aqsa mosque in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem on the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in the largest such gathering since the coronavirus pandemic.

Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Waqf Islamic affairs council, told AFP an estimated 70,000 worshippers came in from Jerusalem, the Israeli-occupied West Bank and from Arab communities inside Israel.

Last Ramadan, "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 busses loaded with pilgrims drove in.

Inside Al-Aqsa mosque, Palestinian men and women sat on the carpeted floor, reading the Koran holy book.

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 Ramadan 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 Ramadan, 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 Ramadan 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.

Those arrested had attacked a police officer, who required medical attention for a head injury, and thrown stones and glass bottles, he said.

Video posted online showed assailants kicking in the windows of a police vehicle in east Jerusalem, and officers firing stun grenades.

Earlier this week, Palestinians accused Israel of breaking into four mosque minarets and cutting wires to prevent the call for prayers from being broadcast on loudspeakers.

Abu Sway of the Waqf said the action came after Islamic officials refused to turn off loudspeakers Wednesday during a memorial for fallen Israelis at the adjacent Western Wall.

Israeli police did not comment on the accusation.

Jordan, custodian of Islamic sites in Jerusalem, condemned what it called Israel's "blatant" violation of the status quo and accused it of provocation.