Thousands of Palestinians Allowed to Pray at Al-Aqsa*
Israel has allowed tens of thousands of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories into Jerusalem to perform Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa mosque.
Police said at least 80,000 people from East Jerusalem, Israel and the West Bank had gone to Islam’s third-holiest site, for Friday prayers, the first since this week’s start of Ramadhan.
There were also 500 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip who were allowed rare permission to pray at the site, an Israeli official said.
They made their way through the Old City’s narrow alleyways and plazas, decorated in areas with lights and lanterns. Sellers hawked prayer mats to passing pilgrims.
Women of all ages and men aged 40 and over from the Israeli-occupied West Bank were allowed into Jerusalem without permits, normally required to cross checkpoints and exit the territory.
Israel’s easing of movement restrictions during Ramadhan comes at a time of heightened tensions with Palestinians and the absence of peace talks.
“While happy to be able to travel to Jerusalem, most Palestinians don’t believe their right to worship should be restricted in the first place,” Al Jazeera’s Nisreen el-Shamaylen, reporting from occupied East Jerusalem, said.
The freedom of movement of Palestinians is a right guaranteed by international law, but a right continuously limited by Israel, and many Palestinians are skeptical of Israel’s decision.
“Israel is very interested in changing the status quo of the occupation, the most profitable occupation in human history,” Mazen Qumsieh, professor at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah told Al Jazeera.
“Billions of dollars from us are spent on Israeli products because we are captive audience etc. One of the ways that Israel likes to maintain this system is by occasionally letting the pressure cooker kind of release her tension.”
According to police, 48,000 Palestinians from the West Bank were among Friday’s visitors compared to a few thousand on an average Friday.
Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Islamic Waqf which runs Al-Aqsa, told AFP news agency he estimated 200,000 worshippers were in and around the compound.
Police and border guards were deployed in force with riot gear and assault rifles. Roads were cordoned off around the Old City and barricades were set up near the entrances to the mosque.
White-robed men walked while twirling prayer beads, and veiled local women begged to pilgrims for alms.
Men and boys who had decorated their stores with gaudy flashing lights and blared Quranic recitations out of CD players sold sweets to pilgrims for the breaking of their fast after sundown.
“I am so happy that I am finally going back to Al-Aqsa after a long period,” Tayseir Menniyah, 60, told Al Jazeera.
“The Israeli easing of restrictions is good but we need more easing for all Gazans not only for the elderly. We want to be able to visit Al-Aqsa every day not only every Friday.”
This year was expected to mark the first time since the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s that Israeli authorities permitted West Bank residents to take direct buses from Palestinian cities to the Al-Aqsa esplanade.
But the direct buses were not in place this Friday, with Major General Yoav Mordechai, head of the defence ministry unit which manages civilian affairs in the West Bank, saying it was “due to the lack of preparation of the Palestinian Authority.”
There was no immediate reaction from the Palestinian Authority.
Men under 40 from the West Bank still needed permits to enter, and Palestinian officials say more must be done to allow access for all those who wished to pray to do so at Al-Aqsa, which Jews call the Temple Mount and consider the holiest site in their religion.