First Ramadan Prayers Held at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque in Shadow of Israeli Restrictions

Tensions were high in the past week after Israel capped the number of worshippers at 10,000, citing 'high morbidity rates' from coronavirus in Palestinian Authority areas

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Palestinians take part in the first Friday prayers of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third holiest site, in Jerusalem's Old City
Palestinians take part in the first Friday prayers of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third holiest site, in Jerusalem's Old CityCredit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP

Tens of thousands of Muslims flocked to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque on the first Friday of Ramadan, but worshippers were angered by Israeli restrictions that denied access to West Bank Palestinians without COVID-19 vaccination documents.

From early morning Palestinian residents of cities such as Bethlehem and Ramallah in the occupied West Bank lined up at Israeli checkpoints to have their entry permits and vaccination status examined before being admitted to Jerusalem.

Other worshippers from East Jerusalem and Arab cities in Israel had easier access, as they are included in Israel's world-beating vaccination rollout.

The restrictions were criticized by Palestinian officials. Ikrima Sabri, who led Friday prayers, accused Israel of "exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to intervene in the affairs of the blessed Aqsa mosque" and the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said Israel turned Jerusalem's Old City into a "military base".

Palestinians entering Jerusalem to attend the first Friday prayers of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, show their covid-19 vaccination certificates to Israeli security forcesCredit: HAZEM BADER - AFP

But Israeli officials said they restricted to 10,000 the number of vaccinated Palestinians entering from the West Bank because of "high morbidity rates" from coronavirus in Palestinian Authority areas.

"The measures 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," said a statement from COGAT, Israel's military liaison to the Palestinians.

The pandemic has added a medical faultline to the religious and political ones: Israel has inoculated more than half its population, but the Palestinians' program lags far behind.

A Palestinian woman prays in front of the Dome of the Rock in the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old CityCredit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

Palestinians and rights groups accused Israel of ignoring its duties as an occupying power.

After the criticism Israel extended its vaccination campaign to Palestinians working in Israel or its West Bank settlements, but the Israeli government says that under the Oslo peace accords, the Palestinian Authority is responsible for the areas where it has limited self-rule.

Despite the tensions the noonday prayers passed without serious incident, as Jerusalem shows signs of returning to normal after a year of lockdowns and restrictions.

Palestinians prostrating themselves in prayer by Al-Aqsa mosque in JerusalemCredit: Mahmoud Illean,AP

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