Muslims pray at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa at start of Ramadan

AFP , Friday 24 Mar 2023

Tens of thousands of worshippers attended Friday prayers at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the first in the holy month of Ramadan, AFP correspondents said, amid heightened tensions in the region.

Al-Aqsa Mosque
Muslims gather outside the Dome of Rock Mosque at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound during the Muslims holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem s Old City, Friday, March 24, 2023. AP

Authorities said the prayers at Islam's third holiest site passed peacefully despite concerns over a recent surge in violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The mosque compound in the Israeli-annexed Old City of east Jerusalem has previously seen clashes and violence between Palestinians and Israelis, particularly during Ramadan.

Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Jordanian Waqf Islamic affairs council which administers the compound, told AFP "the prayers went peacefully and everything went well."

Israeli officials estimated the number of worshippers at more than 80,000 while the Waqf said 100,000 had attended the afternoon prayer.

Israeli police said it had deployed 2,300 officers across the city for the day.

A massive crowd streamed through the Bab al-Silsilah entrance to the compound with prayer mats in hand, an AFP correspondent said, while some posed for photos in front of the iconic golden Dome of the Rock.

The holy Muslim site is built on top of what Jews call the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest site.

An AFP photographer saw a masked man waving the flag of the armed wing of Islamist movement Hamas, Al-Qassam Brigades, while a Hamas banner was unfurled from one of the compound's porticos.

Aboud Hassan, 62, had travelled early on Friday morning from the northern West Bank city of Nablus.

"Ramadan is the most important month of the year, and nothing matters to me except Al-Aqsa," he said.

"Nobody can stop us from praying at Al-Aqsa, thank God. The prayers today went smoothly and without problems, thank God."

An AFP photographer saw huge queues at Qalandiya checkpoint, one of the main crossing points from the occupied West Bank into Israel, after Israeli authorities had eased restrictions on West Bank Palestinians visiting Jerusalem for prayer.

Worshipper Ebtissam Barrak, 26, said "nearly all the roads" in the area were blocked.

"Of course, we fear escalation but we hope that Ramadan will be peaceful... and that Muslims will be able to enter Al-Aqsa to pray without any problems between Jews and Arabs," she added.

Last week Hamas warned Israel it would react to any "violations" at the compound during Ramadan.

Any attempt by Israel to "impose" its policies during Ramadan would be met with the "reaction of our people", said a statement attributed to Saleh al-Aruri, deputy head of the Gaza-based group's political bureau.

Since the start of the year, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has claimed the lives of 87 Palestinian adults and children, including militants and civilians.

Fourteen Israeli including members of the security forces and civilians, and one Ukrainian civilian have been killed over the same period, according to an AFP tally based on official sources from both sides.

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