Security forces on alert in Jerusalem as tens of thousands at Friday Ramadan prayers

Security forces were on high alert in Jerusalem and the West Bank as thousands of Muslims took part in prayers on the second Friday of Ramadan, including at the Al-Aqsa Mosque flashpoint on the Temple Mount.

The Border Police deployed 2,300 soldiers in and around Jerusalem and the West Bank, the force said in a statement. According to official estimates, 52,000 Palestinians entered Israel from the West Bank to participate in the prayers.

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

While there were no reports of violence at the holy site of the Old City, videos showed Palestinian worshipers chanting their support for the chief of Hamas’ military wing, Muhammad Deif, during morning prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

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

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

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said the “reasonably quiet” start to the holy month was due to the professional work of the security forces, after attending a security assessment with Jerusalem District Police Chief Doron Turgeman at the Western Wall.

“There is a need to continue with smart operational readiness, and preserve the current situation in the field as much as possible,” Shabtai said.

Police said in a statement that there has been an increase in incitement by terrorist organizations on social media, including attempts to falsely portray danger to holy sites.

The police vowed to maintain freedom of worship and combat “any attempt to use the month of Ramadan or the holy places to disrupt order, encourage or support terrorism.”

Earlier, Border Police chief Amir Cohen toured the site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron and conducted a security assessment with senior officials responsible for the area.

“There is a great connection between the soldiers of the Border Police and the soldiers of the IDF in the regional section. Successful collaboration continues throughout the year in all challenging events in the sector,” he said.

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (right) and Jerusalem District Commander Doron Turgeman give a tour of the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem, March 31, 2023. (Israel Police)

Cohen emphasized that the role of the troops is to ensure freedom of worship for the residents of the area, and said that he hoped that personnel would act with “decision, professionalism, and to an extent appropriate to the situation.”

Also, Palestinian media reported that Israeli forces fired tear gas Thursday night into a soccer field during the Yasser Arafat Cup match, at the Al-Ram Stadium in the West Bank, near Ramallah.

According to reports, at least three people were taken to a hospital in Ramallah for treatment, and the game was suspended for over an hour.

The Border Police said in a statement that the canisters were not aimed at the stadium, but were part of activities aimed at reducing disturbances and infiltration attempts nearby.

Last Friday, prayers in Jerusalem passed without major incident, however, the police detained one man suspected of incitement for hanging the flag of a terrorist organization at the complex.

Some officials have warned that this Ramadan could be the most difficult to handle in recent years, as tensions remained high amid deadly Israeli attacks on the West Bank and deadly Palestinian terror attacks, as well like an increase in settler violence.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority held two regional summits before Ramadan, where they pledged to de-escalate tensions over the holy month.

Border Police Chief Amir Cohen (center) visiting the West Bank city of Hebron, March 31, 2023. (Border Police)

Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians have been high for the past year, with the IDF conducting almost nightly raids on the West Bank amid a series of deadly terrorist attacks in Palestine. Those tensions have escalated further in recent months, with a cycle of deadly Israeli raids and Palestinian attacks, as well as an increase in settler violence.

Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israel and the West Bank in recent months have left 15 dead and several others seriously injured.

At least 86 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of the year, most of them in attacks or clashes with security forces, although some were unrelated civilians and others were killed under circumstances that are being investigated.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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