Ramadan prayers held at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa, with Israeli restrictions

A Palestinian woman prays in front of the Dome of the Rock in the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, on the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions ease around the country, April 16, 2021. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Muslims flocked to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque on the first Friday of Ramadan, but worshippers were angered by Israeli restrictions that denied access to West Bank Palestinians without COVID-19 vaccination documents.

From early morning Palestinian residents of cities such as Bethlehem and Ramallah in the occupied West Bank lined up at Israeli checkpoints to have their entry permits and vaccination status examined before being admitted to Jerusalem.

Other worshippers from East Jerusalem and Arab cities in Israel had easier access, as they are included in Israel's world-beating vaccination roll-out.

The restrictions were criticised by Palestinian officials. Ikrima Sabri, who led Friday prayers, accused Israel of "exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to intervene in the affairs of the blessed Aqsa mosque" and the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said Israel turned Jerusalem's Old City into a "military base".

But Israeli officials said they restricted to 10,000 the number of vaccinated Palestinians entering from the West Bank because of “high morbidity rates” from coronavirus in Palestinian Authority areas.

"The measures are being taken to allow freedom of worship and religion on one hand, and on the other hand, prevent to the extent possible the spread of COVID-19 in the region," said a statement from COGAT, Israel's military liaison to the Palestinians.

Al-Aqsa Mosque is one of the most sensitive sites in the Middle East conflict. It sits atop the Old City plateau known to Muslims worldwide as al-Haram al-Sharif, or The Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as Har ha-Bayit, or Temple Mount.

Israel captured and occupied it along with the rest of East Jerusalem in a 1967 war, later annexing it.

Israel regards the whole of Jerusalem as its capital and the centre of the Jewish faith. But Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, and Muslims regard Al-Aqsa as the third holiest site in Islam, behind Mecca and Medina.

The pandemic has added a medical faultline to the religious and political ones: Israel has inoculated more than half its population, but the Palestinians' programme lags far behind.

Palestinians and rights groups accused Israel of ignoring its duties as an occupying power.

After the criticism Israel extended its vaccination campaign to Palestinians working in Israel or its West Bank settlements, but the Israeli government says that under the Oslo peace accords, the Palestinian Authority is responsible for the areas where it has limited self-rule.

Despite the tensions the noonday prayers passed without serious incident, as Jerusalem shows signs of returning to normal after a year of lockdowns and restrictions.

(Reporting by Sinan Abu Mayzer and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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