Jerusalem security forces on alert as tens of thousands at 1st Friday Ramadan prayers

Senior police officer stresses non-Muslims to be barred from Temple Mount during holiday; estimated 83,000 worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque without incident

Muslims offer prayer on the first Friday of Ramadan outside the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, March 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
Muslims offer prayer on the first Friday of Ramadan outside the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, March 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Security forces were on high alert in Jerusalem for the first Friday of Ramadan, as mass afternoon prayers held at the Temple Mount passed peacefully.

The Muslim holy month, which began Thursday and will end April 21, often sees elevated Israeli-Palestinian tensions, with frictions already high this year in Jerusalem and across the West Bank following months of deadly violence.

According to official estimates, some 83,000 people took part in afternoon prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, located atop the Temple Mount.

“This is a sensitive and complex period,” Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said after an assessment with commanders at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. “The unique social fabric in East Jerusalem, the Old City and Temple Mount needs to be preserved.”

“We will do everything in our capabilities to ensure freedom of religion for all worshipers while maintaining security and order,” he added.

Shortly after prayers ended, police detained one man suspected of incitement for hanging the banner of a terrorist organization at the complex.

Israeli security forces stand guard as Muslim worshippers head to the Temple Mount compound to attend the first Friday prayers of the holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem’s Old City, March 24, 2023. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)

As police sought to ensure calm, a top commander in Jerusalem stressed non-Muslims would be barred from visiting the Temple Mount during prayers.

The military has eased some restrictions on movement for West Bank and Gazan Palestinians to allow women, children and some men to pray there without permits.

“Jews will not be authorized to go up to the [Temple] Mount during Muslim prayer times,” Chief Superintendent Amir Ben-Kiki, the head of police operations in the capital, told Kan public radio.

For Palestinian Muslims, worship at the Al-Aqsa Mosque — the third-holiest site in Islam — is a central part of the festival. Jews revere the same site as the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism as the location of the ancient Temples.

Regarding potential Palestinian home demolitions during Ramadan, Ben-Kiki stressed the matter was up to the Jerusalem Municipality, with police only providing security. Israeli authorities have typically refrained from such actions during Ramadan, though far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir — whose actions security officials have reportedly warned are contributing to tensions — has been pushing for increased demolition of illegal construction in East Jerusalem.

“At the moment, we do not know that the municipality intends to destroy homes during Ramadan,” Ben-Kiki said.

Meanwhile, Ben Gvir’s office announced he would attend a security briefing with police officers near the Temple Mount before giving a public statement.

Border Police said some 2,400 officers were deployed Friday to Jerusalem, the West Bank and elsewhere as part of the heightened security measures.

On Sunday, Israeli and Palestinian Authority delegations recommitted to de-escalating tensions ahead of Ramadan during a relatively rare, albeit low-stakes, regional summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Some officials have warned that this Ramadan may be the most difficult to handle in years, as tensions remained high amid a cycle of deadly Israeli raids in the West Bank and deadly Palestinian terror attacks, as well as an uptick in settler violence.

According to the Haaretz daily, during a recent meeting with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, military officials said Israel’s ongoing internal unrest, the declining popularity of the Palestinian Authority, a rise in nationalist Jewish attacks and the actions of Ben Gvir are all contributing to a highly volatile state in the West Bank.

Israeli soldiers are seen at the scene of a shooting attack in the West Bank town of Hawara, March 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

A string of Palestinian attacks in Israel and the West Bank in recent months have left 15 people — almost all of them Israelis — dead and several more seriously hurt. Many of the attacks have occurred in the capital and were carried out by Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.

At least 85 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of the year, most of them while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces, though some were uninvolved civilians and others were killed under circumstances that are being investigated.

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