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Thousands pray in Aqsa for 1st time in months

Nov. 14, 2014 5:34 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 16, 2014 10:06 A.M.)
JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- Thousands of Palestinians were able to conduct Friday prayers for the first time in months in the Al-Aqsa mosque after Israel lifted age restrictions that have kept most worshipers out for months and aggravated tensions across Jerusalem.

The courtyards of the Al-Aqsa mosque were filled with men, women, teenagers, and children as hundreds of families arrived at the mosque for prayer, celebrating their right to worship at the compound after months of frequent restrictions against all but the elderly.

The general director of the Jerusalem endowment, Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, said that the number of worshipers reached between 35-40,000, despite the fact that Israeli security guards staffing the entrances still held the ID cards of hundreds who entered.

Locals told Ma'an that many worshipers received parking ticket fines of 100-250 shekels ($26-66) as they left the courtyard after prayers.

Despite the continued armed Israeli presence at the site, the third-holiest in Islam, a festive atmosphere prevailed.

Amir, 18, from the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem that has been repeatedly attacked by Israeli forces and settlers, said it was the first time since July that he had been allowed in.

"It's been four months that I haven't been able to pray at Al-Aqsa on Friday, even during the holy month of Ramadan," he told AFP.

The easing on restrictions came after US Secretary of State John Kerry announced an agreement with Israeli and Palestinian authorities on steps to reduce tensions at the flashpoint compound.

The site, which is holy to Jews as well as Muslims, has been the focus of months of unrest in occupied East Jerusalem, that has spread to the West Bank and Palestinian communities across Israel.

The Palestinians have been infuriated by a far-right Jewish campaign to potentially divide Al-Aqsa that threatens an ultra-sensitive, decades-old status quo.

The violence prompted Kerry to hold a flurry of meetings with the two sides in neighboring Jordan on Thursday, after which he announced unspecified confidence-building measures to ease the underlying tensions.

Men of all ages were allowed entry for the main weekly Muslim prayers at Al-Aqsa for the first time in "months," Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld told AFP.

Police said that 40,000 worshipers attended the prayers, which passed off without incident.

Rosenfeld linked the decision to lift age restrictions to Kerry's talks in Jordan with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah II.

"Firm commitments" were made to maintain the status quo at the compound, Kerry said at a press conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.

Israel and Jordan, which has custodial rights at the compound, also agreed to take steps to "de-escalate the situation" in Jerusalem and to "restore confidence."

"We are not going to lay out each practical step. It is more important they be done in a quiet and effective way," Kerry said.

"It is clear to me that they are serious about working on the effort to create de-escalation and to take steps to instil confidence that the status quo will be upheld."

Kerry met separately in Amman with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who he said also committed to help calm emotions.

"President Abbas and I ... discussed constructive steps, real steps -- not rhetoric but real steps that people can take -- in order to de-escalate the situation and create a climate where we can move forward in a positive and constructive way," Kerry said.

"President Abbas strongly restated his firm commitment to nonviolence, and he made it clear that he will do everything possible to restore calm and to prevent the incitement of violence and to try to change the climate."

Netanyahu has said repeatedly that his government has no plans to change the status quo at the compound which allows Jews to visit but not pray.

Currently the agreement allows Jewish prayer at the neighboring Western Wall.

But his reassurances have failed to calm Palestinian anger that has also been fueled by his government's vigorous expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

The settlement construction -- combined with widespread racial discrimination as well as a broader military occupation that began in 1967 and has no end in sight -- have consistently and repeatedly stoked the flames of Palestinian anger.

A preacher at Al-Aqsa on Friday denounced "Israeli aggression" in his sermon piped over loudspeakers around the compound.

'Serious irregularities'

Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said on Wednesday he would order the installation of metal detectors at the entrances to the compound along with facial-recognition technology.

Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Islamic Waqf which runs the compound, rejected the idea.

An Israeli human rights group on Friday accused the police and paramilitary border police of "serious irregularities" in dispersing Palestinian protests in East Jerusalem.

An 11-year-old Palestinian boy was wounded in the al-Issawiya neighborhood on Thursday when a so-called sponge round fired by police hit him between the eyes during clashes, medics said.

"The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has repeatedly warned the Israel police in recent months about serious irregularities in the conduct of police and border police in dispersing riots and demonstrations in east Jerusalem," the group said.

"Among other issues, these warnings have focused on the use of foam-tipped bullets in contravention to police regulations," it added.

"Regulations stipulate that foam-tipped bullets must only be aimed at the lower body, yet the testimonies we have received... indicate that police forces operating in East Jerusalem have fired at, and hit the faces of, residents and journalists."

AFP contributed to this report.
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