(AP) — Tens of thousands of Muslims demonstrated Friday across the Middle East in support of the Palestinians and against the intensifying Israeli bombardment of Gaza, underscoring the risk of a wider regional conflict as Israel prepares for a possible ground invasion.
From the typically sedate streets of downtown Amman in Jordan, to Yemen’s war-scarred capital of Sanaa, crowds of Muslim worshippers poured into the streets after weekly Friday prayers, angered by devastating Israeli airstrikes on Gaza that began after the militant group Hamas launched an unprecedented surprise attack on Israel last Saturday.
At the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, Israeli police were permitting only certain older men, women and children to enter the sprawling hilltop compound for prayers, trying to limit the potential for violence. Only 5,000 worshippers made it into the site, the Islamic endowment that manages the mosque said. On a typical Friday, some 50,000 perform the prayers.
An Associated Press reporter watched police allow just a Palestinian teenage girl and her mother into the compound out of 20 worshippers who tried to get in, some of them even over the age of 50. Young Palestinian men who were refused entry gathered at the steps near Lion’s Gate, eyes downcast, until police shouted at them and shepherded them outside the Old City ramparts altogether.
“We can’t live, we can’t breathe, they are killing everything that is good within us,” said Ahmad Barbour, a 57-year-old cleaner, red-faced and seething after police blocked him from entering for prayers.
“Everything that is forbidden to us is allowed to them,” he added, referring to the Israelis.
The mosque sits in a hilltop compound sacred to both Jews and Muslims, and conflicting claims over it have spilled into violence before. Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third-holiest site in Islam and stands in a spot known to Jews as the Temple Mount, which is the holiest site in Judaism.
Hundreds of young Palestinian worshippers who had been turned away from the Old City threw down small prayer rugs on the street in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi Joz and prayed in the open. When some of the men started shouting, Israeli police charged into the crowd with batons and fired rounds of tear gas at the worshippers, wounding at least six people, said the Palestinian Red Crescent.
Jerusalem prayers passed peacefully until a few Palestinian teenagers set off firecrackers from the roofs of buildings in the heart of the Old City, prompting dozens of Israeli officers to flood the alleys with their automatic rifles pointed in the air. A few gunshots rang out. No one was hit.
Outside Al-Aqsa Mosque, the mood was somber. One worshipper, 67-year-old Alaa, who declined to give her last name for fear of reprisals, stared at her phone, searching for news of her brother who she said was hospitalised late Thursday when their Gaza City home was bombed.
In Beirut, thousands of supporters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group waved Lebanese, Palestinian and Hezbollah flags, chanting slogans in support of Gaza and calling for “death to Israel.” The Iranian-backed militant group in neighboring Lebanon has launched sporadic attacks since the Hamas assault, but largely stayed on the sidelines of the war.
However, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general warned that it would be “on the lookout” for the United States and British naval vessels heading to the Mediterranean Sea. US officials, including President Joe Biden, have repeatedly warned Iran and the regional militias Tehran backs to stay out of the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
“Your battleships do not interest us, nor do your statements frighten us,” Naim Kassim said at a rally in a southern suburb of Beirut. “When the time is right to take action, we will do so.”