100,000 Peacefully Mark Ramadan’s First Friday at Al Aqsa
Tens of thousands of Palestinians held prayers at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound on the first Friday of the Muslim holy of Ramadan and dispersed peacefully amid a heavy Israeli police presence, said AFP.
Police put the number of Muslim worshippers at almost 100,000, while religious officials gave an estimate of more than 50,000.
Around 2,000 police were deployed and a helicopter hovered overhead for fear of clashes at the scene of the outbreak of the almost 14-month-old Intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule.
Unlike for last year's Ramadan, police did not issue an official ban on certain categories of Palestinians, said the agency.
But Palestinian media blamed Israel for disconnecting Jerusalem from Palestinian Authority controlled areas, thereby preventing worshippers from arriving at the Al Aqsa mosque. Palestinian sources were quoted by the Israeli daily, Haaretz, as saying that Palestinians, even those with Israeli identity cards, had been stopped at roadblocks around Jerusalem and prevented from entering the occupied city.
Three people were hurt in minor scuffles when a large crowd of Palestinians was held up at an army checkpoint as they tried to enter Jerusalem from the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Palestinian witnesses told Reuters news agency. The Israeli army said it had made no arrests, according to the paper.
AFP said that most Palestinians from the West Bank have been kept out of east Jerusalem because of Israel's blockade of the Palestinian territories since the start of the Intifada.
A general ban is in force against males aged under 40.
In the West Bank town of Ramallah, around 400 Palestinians held a protest to make a Ramadan appeal for a continuation of the Intifada, said the agency.
They carried the green flags of the Islamic resistance movement Hamas, black of Islamic Jihad, and red of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Members of the Fateh movement were also among the protesters, said the report.
"We will continue the Intifada on this first day of Ramadan until the day we have secured our rights," the crowd chanted in Ramallah, where 5,000 Muslim faithful prayed in the town's largest mosque.
Israel announced Thursday that some curbs would be eased for Ramadan, 30 prisoners released, and prison visits allowed for families. And the number of Palestinians allowed into Israel for business was raised to 5,000.
Some Israeli military roadblocks in the West Bank would be lifted and the opening hours of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip extended.
A Palestinian security chief, General Amin Al Hindi, called for Israel to take a "positive initiative" for Ramadan.
"It's a difficult period for all of us. Ramadan is a holy month for the Muslims, a month where one turns to Allah and conducts oneself in a reflective manner," he said in a statement published in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot.
On Thursday Israeli President Moshe Katzav called on "our Palestinian neighbors, the people and their leadership, to put out the fire so that we can engage in a serious and fundamental dialogue that will lead us to real peace and security." – Albawaba.com
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)