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JERUSALEM: Muslims worshippers flocked to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound for the second Friday prayer of Ramadan under the heavy presence of Israeli police, a sign of lurking tensions in the holy city.
“We feel lucky to be at Al-Aqsa while hundreds of thousands are deprived of access to it,” said Mustafa Al-Sheikh, a 62-year-old Palestinian who traveled with his wife from Anata, a town near Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank.
The couple were among about 180,000 people who prayed on Friday at the mosque compound, according to the religious body that administers the historically sensitive site in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
“The prayer went smoothly and peacefully,” Azzam Al-Khatib, head of the Waqf Islamic affairs council, told AFP.
The Al-Aqsa mosque compound is Islam’s third holiest site and Judaism’s most sacred, known to Jews as the Temple Mount. It is also a frequent source of tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which have soared this year as war rages in the Gaza Strip.
In past years, violence flared around Al-Aqsa during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, with Palestinians accusing Israel of increasingly restricting access to the site.
Thousands of police officers were deployed to the area surrounding the compound on Friday, some of them heavily armed, in part to enforce age restrictions imposed on West Bank Palestinians.
Israel has said only men aged 55 and over and women older than 50 would be allowed to enter from the territory.
But for many, simply reaching Jerusalem from other parts of the West Bank, dotted with Israeli checkpoints, could be a challenging feat.
Zainab Ramadan Freij, a 70-year-old resident of the northern West Bank’s Tulkarem refugee camp, said she had to take a bus at 6:30 am from to make it to Jerusalem — just over 60 kilometers (40 miles) away — in time for the noon prayer.
Once inside the compound, worshippers rejoiced and took photos on Al-Aqsa’s iconic rock stairs.
“My friend Lina has been in America for 20 years. I want to send her these pictures because she loves Al-Aqsa and misses it,” said Rabab Hadiya, a 49-year-old teacher from Jerusalem.
Just two weeks ago, mass prayers at the compound ended in clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces, but so far Ramadan has passed without any major incident.

Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at Israeli think-tank the Institute for National Security Studies, attributed the relative calm to several policy decisions.
Officers had been told to be particularly careful and police were monitoring social media for incitement, Michael told AFP.
He also said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had reined in the firebrand Israeli minister overseeing the police force, who had suggested barring all West Bank residents from the revered mosque.
“Netanyahu himself intervened” to strip National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir of his “authority on the issue of Palestinians’ access to Al-Aqsa during Ramadan,” Michael said.
In his sermon, the preacher spoke of Palestinians suffering hunger in the war-battered Gaza Strip.
“Do not forget and remember your brothers in Gaza who sleep without food in a tent or in a destroyed house,” he said.
This message resonated with 69-year-old Mohammad Abu Arar, whose wife’s family in Gaza are currently sheltering in tents in the far-southern city of Rafah.
“We pray for our people there to be safe and for the war to end peacefully, from the most sacred place for us,” said Abu Arar.
Israel’s military campaign against Hamas has killed at least 32,070 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, according to the Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry.
It was triggered by Hamas’s unprecedented attack on southern Israel on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
International mediators had aimed for a new truce before Ramadan, but more than two weeks into the holy month and nearly six months into the war, no agreement has been reached.


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