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

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

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

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.

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

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.

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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.

קריאות "אנחנו אנשי מוחמד דף" ותמיכה בשהידים בהר הבית, במהלך תפילת שישי השני של רמדאן @guy_telaviv

— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) March 31, 2023

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

“It is necessary to continue smart operational readiness, and preserve the existing situation in the field as much as possible,” Shabtai said.

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

Police vowed to maintain freedom of worship and tackle “any attempt to use the month of Ramadan or the holy places to disrupt order, incite or support terrorism.”

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

“There is an excellent connection between Border Police soldiers and the IDF’s soldiers in the regional division. Successful cooperation goes on throughout the year in all challenging incidents in the sector,” he said.

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

Cohen emphasized the role of the troops is to ensure freedom of worship for residents in the area, and said he expected personnel to act with “determination, professionalism, and to a degree that is fitting to the situation.”

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

According to the reports, at least three people were taken to a hospital in Ramallah for treatment, and the game was paused 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 putting down disturbances and infiltration attempts nearby.

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

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.

Israeli and the Palestinian Authority have held two regional summits in the lead-up to Ramadan, where they committed to de-escalating 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 near-nightly raids in the West Bank amid a series of deadly Palestinian terror attacks. Those tensions have ramped up even further in recent months, which saw a cycle of deadly Israeli raids and Palestinian attacks, as well as an uptick in settler violence.

Palestinian terror attacks in Israel and the West Bank in recent months have left 15 dead and several more seriously hurt.

At least 86 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.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.