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15,000 Muslim worshipers pack Temple Mount in defiance of COVID restrictions

Holy site reopened following 45-day pause due to pandemic restrictions; number of seriously ill patients in Israel continues to decline as effects of vaccinations kick in

Palestinian Muslims resume praying outside the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosques compound on February 12, 2021, following a 45-day pause due to COVID-19 restrictions. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
Palestinian Muslims resume praying outside the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosques compound on February 12, 2021, following a 45-day pause due to COVID-19 restrictions. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Thousands of Muslim worshipers packed into the Temple Mount holy site for Friday prayers in violation of public health guidelines, which cap outdoor crowds at 20 people.

The Kan public broadcaster estimated that 15,000 worshipers were in attendance and photos of the scene showed participants jammed up against one another with many not wearing face masks.

The Arutz Sheva news outlet reported that Israeli security forces prevented dozens of Palestinians from entering what Muslims refer to as the Al-Aqsa compound, but officers were evidently ill-equipped to prevent the mass crowding that ensued.

It was the first time the site had opened for Friday prayers after a 45-day shut-down due to rising COVID-19 case numbers, AFP said.

Footage showed large crowds both throughout the compound and inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque itself.

Already in December, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash acknowledged that Israel has no way to enforce the pandemic restrictions at the Temple Mount, where tens of thousands of Muslim worshipers had been gathering every Friday.

“There is no solution,” Ash was quoted as saying during a closed-door meeting on the subject.

The Waqf, a Jordanian-appointed council, oversees Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. It claims exclusive authority over the Temple Mount compound and says it is not subject to Israeli jurisdiction. Tensions often escalate at the site.

The Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism, as the site of the biblical Temples. It is the site of the third holiest shrine in Islam. Israel captured the Temple Mount and Jerusalem’s Old City in the 1967 Six Day War, and extended sovereignty throughout Jerusalem. However, it allowed the Waqf to continue to maintain religious authority atop the mount, where Jews are allowed to visit, but not to pray.

Palestinian Muslims resume praying at the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound on February 12, 2021, following a 45-day pause due to COVID-19 restrictions. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Jordan’s role as custodian was enshrined by the landmark Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement in 1994.

The Temple Mount was also closed for weeks in March, as Israel imposed a nationwide lockdown. In September, as Israel entered its second countrywide closure, the Waqf initially said it would close the compound, but later reversed the decision, fearing that Jewish worshipers would be allowed to continue to visit.

Earlier this week, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion warned local Arab officials in the city that unvaccinated residents may not be permitted to go to mosques, schools or hotels.

The meeting between the mayor and the heads of a number of neighborhoods in the city was held amid concerns about low vaccination rates in East Jerusalem.

The legality of preventing unvaccinated individuals from attending gatherings or going to work is still under debate as the country struggles to add incentives to its world-leading vaccination program, which has been losing momentum.

A Palestinian woman, wearing a protective mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic, prays outside the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound on February 12, 2021. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Health officials are said to be deeply concerned about the upcoming festival of Ramadan, a time for large gatherings, combined with low vaccination rates and with the highly contagious British strain of the virus running rampant.

According to data published by Kan news, East Jerusalem is one of the Arab localities with the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with only 13 percent of all residents receiving their first inoculation. By comparison, the first shot vaccination rate is 20% in Rahat, 26% in Taibeh, 30% in Umm al-Fahm, 32% in Nazareth, 41% in Shfaram and 43% in Tamra.

However, updated coronavirus figures from the Health Ministry showed that the effects of the country-wide vaccination drive were continuing to show an impact.

The number of seriously ill patients continued a steady decline, reaching 1,002 on Thursday, the lowest number in weeks. There were also just 54 new seriously ill patients on Thursday, half the amount from the day before.

There were 4,931 new cases on Thursday, bringing the total number to 718,746 with 61,920 being active. Of the 75,587 tests carried out on Thursday, 6.7 percent of them came back positive. Six more Israelis died on Thursday, 23 fewer than the previous day, bringing the total death count to 5,304.

Over 3,780,710 Israelis have received the first dose of vaccine and 2,415,692 have received both doses.

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