Jerusalem (AFP) – Tens of thousands of Muslim worshippers streamed through Jerusalem’s Old City to one of Islam’s most revered sites on Friday as Israel eased restrictions for the fasting month of Ramadan.
Police said at least 80,000 people from east Jerusalem, Israel and the West Bank had gone to Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, for Friday prayers, the first since this week’s start of Ramadan.
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.
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 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 Koranic recitations out of CD players sold sweets to pilgrims for the breaking of their fast after sundown.
“This is the holiest place for Muslims in Palestine, and we’re excited as always to make the journey,” said 64-year-old Ahmed from the West Bank city of Ramallah, preferring to give only his first name.
“It took a while to get through the checkpoint at Qalandiya (between Ramallah and Jerusalem) but it was worth it.”
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.