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After weeks of tension, Friday’s Muslim prayers in Old City end peacefully

Worshipers roll up prayers rugs and leave Lions Gate area quietly; Israel Police confirm prayers end without incident

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Israeli border guards keep watch as Palestinian Muslim worshipers pray outside Jerusalem's Old City overlooking the Temple Mount compound on July 28, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / AHMAD GHARABLI)
Israeli border guards keep watch as Palestinian Muslim worshipers pray outside Jerusalem's Old City overlooking the Temple Mount compound on July 28, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / AHMAD GHARABLI)

Midday Muslim prayers services on Friday ended peacefully at the Temple Mount and the surrounding area, following 13 consecutive days of tensions in the Old City of Jerusalem and across the West Bank.

Firas Dibs, an official from the Waqf, the Jordanian religious body that administers the holy site, said tens of thousands attended Friday prayers on the Temple Mount.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld confirmed prayers ended without incident. Police were out in force in anticipation of mass demonstrations.

Muslims only returned to the Temple Mount on Thursday after about two weeks of praying in the streets nearby to protest new Israeli security measures placed at the site following a July 14 terror attack in which assailants used guns smuggled into the compound to kill two policemen guarding near there.

All the new security measures were removed on Thursday.

Police had barred men under the age of 50 from entering the Temple Mount for Friday prayers, saying they had received information extremists were planning violent protests in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The Hamas terror group, which controls the Gaza Strip, had called for a “day of rage.”

Muslim worshipers pray outside Jerusalem's Old City near the Lions' Gate on July 28, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)
Muslim worshipers pray outside Jerusalem’s Old City near the Lions Gate on July 28, 2017. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

Hundreds of men under the age of 50, as well as some women, prayed on the streets in the area around the Lions Gate into the Old City.

This narrow area, where Israel had placed and then removed metal detectors and security cameras at an entrance to the Temple Mount — which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and is known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) — had seen thousands of worshipers praying in the streets each day since protests began.

On Friday, however, immediately after the prayers ended, the worshipers rolled up their prayer rugs and quietly went home.

While the prayers in recent days usually ended in chants against Israel or Jews, on Friday no chants were yelled either before or after the prayer services.

Muslim worshippers pray at an entrance to the Temple Mount at the Lion's Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, July 25, 2017. Muslim worshippers still refused to pray on the Temple Mount following the government's decision remove the metal detectors and instead place more security cameras on the compound. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Muslim worshipers pray at an entrance to the Temple Mount at the Lions Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, July 25, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Said Abu Ghanam, 67, from the East Jerusalem neighborhood A-Tur, prayed in Al-Aqsa on Friday. “We came and went to prayers with no problems,” he said. “Inshallah (God-willing) the crisis is over,” he added.

Some men below the age of 50 showed up to the Temple Mount gates unaware the police had barred them from the holy site on Friday.

Mazen, 40, a resident of the Old City, said that while the tensions had abated for now, the underlying cause for the flare-up was still around.

“As long as Israeli soldiers are staying here by the Al-Aqsa gates, things won’t be good,” he said, referring to the Israeli policemen stationed outside entrances to the Temple Mount, which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock sanctuary.

Haneen Sandorka, 24, was one of the tens of Palestinian women near the Lions Gate who refused to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque because the Huta Gate north of the Temple Mount was still closed.

Sandorka, who lives next to the Huta Gate, said she opposed the deadly July 14 shooting attack because it was carried out at a holy place. “Religion is about peace,” she said.

“But we don’t feel peaceful here,” she added, referring to the Temple Mount and it environs.

The fate of the Temple Mount is an emotional issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even the smallest perceived change to delicate arrangements pertaining to the site sparks tensions.

Jews revere the hilltop compound as the Temple Mount, site of the two Jewish biblical temples. It is the holiest site in Judaism, and the nearby Western Wall, a remnant of one of the temples, is the holiest place where Jews can pray.

The walled compound is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. It is Islam’s third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Muslims believe the site marks the spot where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Israel had faced intense pressure over the security devices and said it plans to install sophisticated cameras instead. Palestinian leaders and Muslim clerics had insisted Israel restore the situation at the shrine to what it was before the attack.

While prayers in and around the Temple Mount ended peacefully Friday, there were clashes in the other areas in Jerusalem and in the West Bank.

A Palestinian wielding a knife rushed at IDF soldiers at the Gush Etzion Junction, south of Jerusalem, in the West Bank on Friday and was shot dead, the army said.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said the two dozen or so Palestinians were injured in low-level clashes in the West Bank cities of Bethlehem, Hebron, Tulkarem, Ramallah and the adjacent Qalandiya refugee camp.

Several injuries were reported at clashes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi al-Joz as well.

Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.

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