Around 40,000 Muslims attend Friday prayers in Al Aqsa amid heavy Israeli police presence

The first Friday prayers of Ramadan appear to have concluded without any incidents

The first Friday prayers of Ramadan in Jerusalem have concluded without disturbances. EPA
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Sheikh Ekrima Sa'id Sabri, his voice booming around the vast Al Aqsa mosque complex, dedicated much of his sermon during the first Friday prayers of Ramadan to the catastrophe unfolding in Gaza, only about 80km away from where he sat in Jerusalem.

“Oh God, shower your mercy upon our people in Gaza, alleviate their suffering, and restore their shattered spirits,” he told the roughly 40,000 Muslims who came to the compound.

“Oh God, their children are hungry; provide them with sustenance. Oh God, their children are thirsty; quench their thirst with water.”

Worshippers listened in calm silence. There has been huge concern that the symbolic day might erupt in anger, but, so far, there has been barely any animosity.

Hamas had called for worshippers to barricade themselves inside the compound, and dramatic artwork depicting fighters wrapped in keffiyehs in front of Al Aqsa flooded local Telegram channels.

But Palestinians and a small number of foreign pilgrims in attendance came only to pray.

Israeli police and border police were out in huge numbers, many carrying riot shields and some wearing helmets. Around 3,000 personnel, including four reservist border police units, have been called to Jerusalem in recent days, Israeli outlet Haaretz reported.

As the hours progressed, the security forces relaxed. Some had lunch while resting tear gas canister launchers on their laps, while others scrolled through their phones.

One shouted “be safe” to a rare group of foreign tourists that was shuffling past.

He was guarding a gate that The National visited the Friday after October 7. Then, most worshippers were forced to pray outside the gate, because of strict Israeli rules that let only the elderly in to pray.

Now, Muslims of all ages were going in with little more than a quick bag search by police.

Israel put restrictions in place limiting West Bank Palestinians' access to the compound for Friday's prayers to men over 55, women over 50 and children under 10 and required all of them to have special permits.

Palestinians without the permits were prevented from crossing into Jerusalem from the West Bank.

A stone’s throw away from where Sheikh Sabri addressed worshippers, far-right Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the Western Wall complex to inspect and laud the security forces gathered there.

“During Ramadan, the fighters work for our security around the clock, and I give them full support to operate with full force in dealing with terrorists and disturbances,” Mr Ben-Gvir wrote on social media platform X.

Mr Ben-Gvir and his supporters still advocate strict limits on the number of Muslims, even Palestinian citizens of Israel, who should be allowed to visit Al Aqsa.

Plenty in the security establishment strongly disagree with the approach, reports suggest, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to respect freedom of worship.

There have been deadly attacks in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Israel this week. Many fear that a big attack will prompt Mr Netanyahu’s government to enact far harsher restrictions.

It is just one of the many variables that could break the relative calm in the West Bank for the rest of the holy month.

Updated: April 08, 2024, 10:50 AM