Tens of thousands enter al-Aqsa Mosque for Ramadan’s first Friday

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Occupied East Jerusalem – More than 100,000 Palestinians, many of them from the occupied West Bank, have made their way to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem for the first Friday of Ramadan.

Palestinians from the occupied territories, who otherwise cannot access Jerusalem, are typically allowed to enter the city under strict conditions during the Fridays of the Muslim holy month.

On most days, Qalandiya checkpoint, the main gateway in the West Bank to Jerusalem and beyond, resembles a land border, complete with terminals, turnstiles and security detectors.

This time, Palestinian men over 40 and women of all ages were allowed to pass, with most streaming past concrete barriers without being stopped, as Israeli soldiers stood close by.

Occasionally, a man would be stopped and asked for his Israeli military-issued ID to determine whether he was of the appropriate age to pass through or not.

‘Important to go to Jerusalem whenever we can’

Some mothers had brought their younger teenage sons with them, hoping that they would be overlooked and not subject to stringent searching.

Munira Abu Nasra, 40, walked past the soldiers in a sure-mannered way, holding in one hand her nine-year-old son and a bag in the other.

“I had a feeling that this Friday there wouldn’t be a lot of people crossing Qalandiya,” she told Al Jazeera, her eyes sweeping over the thin moving crowds of people.

“That’s why I made sure to come today.”

On Monday, several hundred Palestinians gathered in Jerusalem to protest against the relocation of the US embassy to the city, a move widely criticised by the international community.

The relocation ceremony took place as the Israeli army killed at least 62 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who rallied as part of the Great March of Return movement calling for the right of refugees to return to the areas from which they were forcibly removed in 1948, when the state of Israel was created.

“People are not sure whether the situation is stable enough and are still afraid of going to Jerusalem, in light of last week’s events,” said Abu Nasra.

Travel permits are usually granted during Ramadan for Palestinians of all ages, yet so far they are yet to be issued by the Israeli military administration. Additionally, no permits as of yet were issued to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Abu Nasra is from the town of Bir Nabala, which is an east Jerusalem suburb that was cut off from the city by the separation wall and now counted as West Bank territory.

“It’s important to go to Jerusalem whenever we can,” Abu Nasra said, as she reached the other side of the checkpoint where buses were waiting to ferry people off to Jerusalem. “I have another son who is 16 and there’s no way he can cross through Qalandiya.”

Women cross through Qalandiya checkpoint, located between Ramallah and Jerusalem, on Friday morning on their way to Jerusalem’s Old city [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera]

‘Dream come true’

The short ride after crossing the checkpoint ended at the beginning of Salah al-Din Street, the main commercial centre in occupied east Jerusalem, where metal barricades were set up at various points.

Helicopters and drones were up in the sky, and there was an increased presence of Israeli border police guards and flying checkpoints – temporary military inspection areas.

Entering through one of the gates of the Old City, Palestinians made their way to the al-Aqsa compound, some draping their prayer mats over their heads to shield them from the hot sun.

Inside, as the two mosques were full, men, women and children took cover in the shade of trees, waiting for the call to prayer.

Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, director general of the Jerusalem Waqf and Al-Aqsa Mosque, told local media that as many as 120,000 worshipers managed to reach the al-Aqsa Mosque compound for Friday prayers.

“Coming to Jerusalem is a dream come true,” said Hadeel Dabaas, a young woman from Tulkarem. “I plan on coming every Friday, as long as things remain calm and there are not any complications at the checkpoints.”

Hadeel Dabaas, 23, from the northern West Bank town of Tulkarem, says coming to Jerusalem is a “dream come true” [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera]

The 23-year-old admitted she was in two minds about whether or not to come up until the last minute because of the recent heightened tensions, but was surprised by what she saw at Qalandiya checkpoint.

“It was very calm. It’s like the Israelis, by making minimal fuss of us crossing into Jerusalem today, want to show the world a polished image of themselves,” she said. “The soldiers even passed out Ramadan Kareem cards!”

Tensions subsiding

While many Palestinians have stressed that the US embassy move to Jerusalem makes little difference to their lives – considering that the city is already occupied – they nevertheless are cautious about entering Jerusalem, even for worship.

Following the deadly shootings of scores of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip this week, Israeli authorities expressed concerns that protests would spread across Jerusalem and the West Bank – but for now there is little to show whether this will happen.

Only a smattering of people heeded the call of several Palestinian popular committees, who had called for protests at flashpoints with the Israeli occupation after Friday prayers. Unsurprisingly, their presence amounted to no confrontations.

Juma Abed Sa’sa, 77, came from Jericho to pray in Jerusalem [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera]

However, the significance of Jerusalem still weighs heavily on the minds of Palestinians.

“Without Jerusalem, there is no life,” Juma Abed Sa’sa, who was born in Yafa in 1941, told Al Jazeera. 

Sitting outside near Damascus Gate, the elderly man, who was forced from his hometown at the age of seven and now lives in Jericho, plans on spending his Ramadan Fridays in the city.

“Without Jerusalem there can be no peace,” he said.

“If the Palestinian leadership gave up on it, then what else is there left for them to negotiate over?”

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