Thousands pack Al-Aqsa Mosque, protest Palestinian evictions in Jerusalem

by Reuters
Friday, 7 May 2021 18:50 GMT

* Palestinians gather at Islam's third holiest shrine

* Tensions in focus at Muslim prayer sermon on Friday

* Israeli Supreme Court has hearing on evictions on Monday

* Sheikh Jarrah area of East Jerusalem focus of long dispute (Adds U.S. State Department concern)

By Rami Ayyub

JERUSALEM, May 7 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Palestinian worshippers packed into Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque on the final Friday of Ramadan and many stayed on to protest in support of Palestinians facing eviction from homes on land claimed by Jewish settlers.

With health restrictions mostly lifted following Israel's swift COVID-19 vaccine campaign, worshippers huddled tightly together as they knelt in prayer on the tree-lined hilltop plateau containing the mosque, Islam's third-holiest site.

Ongoing tensions in the city, which lies at the centre of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, were the focus of a Friday sermon given by Sheikh Tayseer Abu Sunainah.

"Our people will remain steadfast and patient in their homes, in our blessed land," Abu Sunainah said of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah area who could be evicted under a long-running legal case.

Following prayers, thousands remained on the compound to protest against the evictions, with many waving Palestinian flags and chanting a refrain common during Jerusalem protests: "With our soul and blood, we will redeem you, Aqsa".

Israel's Supreme Court will hold a hearing on the Sheikh Jarrah evictions on Monday.

'PLAYING WITH FIRE'

Sheikh Jarrah's residents are overwhelmingly Palestinian, but the neighbourhood also contains a site revered by religious Jews as the tomb of an ancient high priest, Simon the Just.

The spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said the evictions, "if ordered and implemented, would violate Israel's obligations under international law" on East Jerusalem territory it captured from neighbouring Jordan and which it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

"We call on Israel to immediately halt all forced evictions, including those in Sheikh Jarrah, and to cease any activity that would further contribute to a coercive environment and lead to a risk of forcible transfer," spokesman Rupert Colville said on Friday.

Washington was "deeply concerned about the heightened tensions in Jerusalem," said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter.

"As we head into a sensitive period in the days ahead, it will be critical for all sides to ensure calm and act responsibly to deescalate tensions and avoid violent confrontation," Porter said.

The European Union, Kuwait and Jordan have expressed alarm at the potential evictions. By dusk on Friday, scores of Israeli police in riot gear and about 100 protesters had gathered outside the eviction site.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said Jordan had given the Palestinian Authority documents that he said showed the Sheikh Jarrah Palestinians were the "legitimate owners" of their homes.

Israel's "provocative steps in occupied Jerusalem and violation of Palestinian rights, including the rights of the people of Sheikh Jarrah in their homes, is playing with fire," Safadi said in a foreign ministry statement on Twitter.

Israel's foreign ministry said on Friday Palestinians were "presenting a real-estate dispute between private parties as a nationalist cause, in order to incite violence in Jerusalem." Palestinians rejected the allegation.

Israeli-Palestinian clashes have broken out nightly in Sheikh Jarrah ahead of Monday's court hearing. (Reporting by Rami Ayyub; additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Simon Lewis in Washington; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Edmund Blair, William Maclean)

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