By Abdul Raouf Arnaout
Thousands of Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Arab communities inside Israel have converged on East Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque to perform the first Friday prayers of the Ramadan fasting month.
Numerous worshippers from the central and northern West Bank passed through the Qalandia security checkpoint linking Jerusalem to Ramallah.
According to an Israeli police statement, men over 40, children under 13 and women of all ages are allowed to enter East Jerusalem without permits for the occasion.
Men between 30 and 40, however, must obtain special permits in order to enter, according to the statement.
The Bethlehem checkpoint linking Jerusalem to the southern West Bank saw the imposition of similar security measures.
Since Friday morning, the Israeli authorities have stepped up security across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Thousands of troops have been deployed at the entrances of Jerusalem's Old City and along adjacent streets and alleyways.
Al-Aqsa Mosque Director Sheikh Omar Kiswani told Anadolu Agency that some 200,000 worshippers were expected to attend Friday prayers at the iconic mosque.
“Despite all the Israeli [security] measures, thousands of people have poured into the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound -- from the West Bank and from Arab communities inside Israel -- since morning,” he said.
“At least 100,000 will stay to perform Taraweeh [nighttime] prayers and 20,000 until Fajr [dawn] prayers,” he added.
Jerusalem’s Jordan-run Islamic Endowments Authority, Kiswani explained, was providing worshippers with free meals.
Jameel Barak, a 40-year old Palestinian from the southern West Bank city of Hebron, told Anadolu Agency that it was his first time to visit Al-Aqsa in 25 years.
“I came here today for Friday prayers along with my wife and two young children,” he said. “My eldest son is 15 years old, though, so he could not join us.”
“I’m overwhelmed by the holiness of Al-Aqsa,” Barak added. “I plan to come every Friday of Ramadan and stay to perform Taraweeh prayers.”
In his Friday sermon, Sheikh Mohamed Hussein, Mufti of Jerusalem, condemned the recent relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, describing the new diplomatic mission as a “U.S. settlement”.
He called on Arab and Muslim states to withdraw their ambassadors from any country that follows the U.S. lead and relocates its embassy to Jerusalem.
He also said the Palestinian people were “looking forward” to resolutions issued at an extraordinary summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which is now underway in Istanbul.
The summit was convened by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to mull a response to Monday’s massacre by Israeli troops of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators near the Gaza-Israel fence.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque complex is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. It is regarded by the latter as the world's third holiest site.
Jews refer to the area as the “Temple Mount”, claiming it was the site of two Jewish temples in ancient times.
Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- in which Al-Aqsa is located -- during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
In a move never recognized by the international community, Israel annexed the entire city in 1980, claiming it as its “eternal and undivided” capital.
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