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US urges Israel to let Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan

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The United States on Wednesday urged Israel to allow Muslims to worship at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem during Ramadan, after a far-right minister proposed barring Palestinians from the occupied West Bank from praying there.

“As it pertains to Al-Aqsa, we continue to urge Israel to facilitate access to Temple Mount for peaceful worshippers during Ramadan consistent with past practice,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters, using the Jewish term for the site, the holiest in Judaism.

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“That’s not just the right thing to do, it’s not just a matter of granting people religious freedom that they deserve and to which they have a right, but it’s also a matter that directly is important to Israel’s security,” he said.

“It is not in Israel’s security interest to inflame tensions in the West Bank or in the broader region.”

Israel has been assessing how to address worship in Jerusalem during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month that will start on March 10 or 11 depending on the lunar calendar.

The month of fasting comes as Israel wages a relentless military campaign in the Gaza Strip in response to a major attack by Hamas inside Israel on October 7.

Last week, Israeli police minister announced that it will cap the number of Muslim citizens who take part in peak prayers at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, citing concern the flashpoint site could see protests at the Gaza war.

Al-Aqsa, one of Islam’s holiest shrines, is part of East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in a 1967 war and the focus of Palestinian statehood hopes. The site is also revered by Jews as a vestige of their two ancient temples.

Rules about access have been a frequent source of friction, including for Muslims who make up 18 percent of Israel’s population, particularly during Ramadan.

Israel has imposed restrictions in the past - mostly on younger Palestinians from Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. More than four months into the Gaza war, worries about flare-ups are spiraling.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said his bid to bar most Muslim citizens from Friday prayers during Ramadan was overruled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Still, he said a cap of 40,000 to 50,000 would be imposed, having successfully argued against officials who wanted 120,00 to 150,000 admitted.

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The measure drew condemnation from Arab leaders, including opposition lawmaker Ahmad Tibi, who said the far-right Ben-Gvir is an “arsonist, but who has above him someone who is responsible and is handing him a jerrycan of petrol.”

Ben-Gvir voiced disappointment that Netanyahu had not accepted his proposal to empower police to enter the Al-Aqsa compound and remove any flags or signs erected in support of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group Israel is fighting in Gaza.

The United States has been pressing for a deal before Ramadan begins in which Israel would halt strikes in the Gaza Strip and hostages snatched on October 7 would be freed.

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