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 their homes on Israeli-occupied land claimed by Jewish settlers.
With health restrictions mostly lifted following Israel’s swift coronavirus vaccine campaign, worshippers packed tightly together as they knelt in prayer on the tree-lined hilltop plateau containing the mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site.
However, thousands of Palestinians from the occupied West Bank were blocked from reaching the Al-Aqsa Mosque as Israeli forces set up several roadblocks and checkpoints along the way to the holy site.
Continuing tensions in the city at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were front and centre in the 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 the multiple Palestinian families in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood who could be evicted under a long-running legal case.
Following prayers, thousands remained in 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.
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, Simeon the Just.
The spokesman for the United Nations 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 and 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.
Israel’s foreign ministry said on Friday that 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.
‘Our families are terrified’
Over the past week, residents of Sheikh Jarrah, as well as Palestinian and international solidarity activists, have attended nightly vigils to support the Palestinian families under threat of forced displacement.
But on Friday, Israeli police blocked off the entrances of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood to hundreds of Palestinians and solidarity activists trying to enter the area, said activists.
Earlier today the Israeli police tried to disperse the weekly protest in #SheikhJarrah #SaveSheikhJarrah pic.twitter.com/NBrab2Ujru
— Oren Ziv (@OrenZiv1985) May 7, 2021
Mohammed el-Kurd, a Palestinian resident of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, shared photos on social media showing armed Jewish settlers walking around the neighbourhood.
“What if they massacre us?” he asked. “Our families are terrified.”
Right now in Sheikh Jarrah: settlers are walking around armed while no Palestinians are allowed in. LOOK AND LOOK AGAIN.
What if they massacre us?! Our families are terrified. Who’s to save us?! pic.twitter.com/tic35KCFfN
— mohammed el-kurd (@m7mdkurd) May 7, 2021
Israeli border police and forces have attacked the sit-ins using skunk water, tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and shock grenades over the past few days. Dozens of Palestinians have been arrested.
On Thursday night, at least 30 people were wounded and 15 arrested. Videos emerged showing Israeli settlers deliberately provoking a Palestinian communal iftar meal set up outside one of the houses, including using pepper spray. Palestinians responded by throwing chairs at the settlers.
The Sheikh Jarrah cause has escalated over the past week despite the issue running for decades.
Jewish settler organisations filed a lawsuit in the 1970s claiming the area belonged to Jews originally, and seeking the expulsion of Palestinian families living there since 1956.
These families, refugees from the 1948 Nakba, eventually settled in Sheikh Jarrah under an agreement between Jordan and the UN refugee agency.
The Israeli district court ruled that four families – al-Kurd, Iskafi, Qassim and Jaouni – must leave their homes for settlers to take over, or reach an agreement with these settler organisations by paying rent and recognising them as landlords.
The families refused and the court postponed their final verdict to May 10.
Several US lawmakers, including Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush and Marie Newman have spoken out against the attacks and imminent forced displacement in Sheikh Jarrah.
Al Jazeera and news agencies