40,000 attend prayers at holy site after Israeli ban on top cleric

AMMAN: A row over an Israeli ban on a top cleric entering Islam’s third-holiest site failed to prevent thousands of Muslims flocking to Friday prayers.

More than 40,000 worshippers packed into Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the adjoining Bab Al-Rahmeh prayer area less than a week after the Israeli government placed a 40-day bar on head of the Jerusalem Waqf Council, Sheikh Abdel Hafiz Salhab, from accessing the mosque. 

The Israelis have also ordered his deputy, Najeh Bkeirat, to stay away from Al-Aqsa mosque for four months.

Jordanian Minister of Waqf Abdel Naser Abu Basel last week described the ban on Salhab, who holds diplomatic status, as “unacceptable” and said the Israeli move was designed to “cripple” the work of the Jerusalem waqf and “terrorize” its members.

But Salhab told Arab News that the waqf council refused to contest the issue in the Israeli courts.

“We don’t recognize Israeli courts and we are keeping a vigilant eye as to what is happening on our religious properties, including Al-Aqsa Mosque,” he said.

Hatem Abdel Qader, a member of the newly established waqf council in Jerusalem, told Arab News that Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa went without incident.

“We are not interested in escalating the situation, and the other side (Israel) appears to have also lowered the level of tension,” he said.

Israeli officials including Nadav Argaman, the head of internal intelligence Shin Bet, have reportedly held high-level talks with their Jordanian counterparts in Amman aimed at taking the heat out of the situation in Jerusalem.

Officials in Amman told Arab News that all offers to close Bab Al-Rahmeh were rejected. 

Waqf council member Abdel Qader confirmed negotiations were taking place but said these were more to do with the mechanics of getting equipment and materials for renovation work into the prayer hall. 

He said that Bab Al-Rahmeh has been in urgent need of repair for years.

Seven women who were recently arrested outside the mosque were on Friday released on condition they stay away from Al-Aqsa for a week. 

More than 100 Palestinian Muslims have been ordered by the Israelis to keep clear of the mosque.

Salhab said that there was no religious reason to stop women from being added to the waqf council. “I see no problem in having women in our council,” the cleric added. 

“They should not be ignored as they have an important and effective role and represent half the population.”

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