QALANDIA CROSSING, West Bank – Hundreds of Palestinians thronged two major West Bank checkpoints, trying to reach a key Islamic shrine in Jerusalem on the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, despite tight Israeli restrictions.
Israeli troops turned back many of the West Bank faithful. Only men above the age of 45 and women above the age of 35, who had also obtained special permits, were allowed to enter Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest shrine of Islam, said police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby.
Later Friday, several tens of thousands of Palestinians participated in the Al Aqsa service, and the crowd dispersed peacefully.
This year, the start of Ramadan, a month of fasting and religious observance, coincided with the Jewish New Year. As customary, Israel imposed a blanket closure on the West Bank during the Jewish holiday, barring virtually all Palestinians from entering Israel.
Hundreds of Israeli police were deployed in streets and alleys in and around Jerusalem's walled Old City where the Al Aqsa Mosque compound is located.
Troops also took up positions at two major West Bank checkpoints, one to the south of Jerusalem and one to the north. The checkpoints are built into Israel's West Bank separation barrier, which rings most of Jerusalem to control Palestinian movement into Israel.
At the southern checkpoint, near the biblical town of Bethlehem, hundreds of Palestinians, many of them elderly, pushed up against police lines set up near the separation barrier, in this area a towering wall.
At one point, the crowd pushed through the police line. One woman crawled on her hands and knees, another fell to the ground as people behind her surged forward. Israeli troops shouted at people to get back.
At the northern Qalandia crossing, near the city of Ramallah, hundreds of people waited to pass.
Hamdi Abu Fadi, 44, was turned back because he didn't meet the age requirement. Abu Fadi said he'd try to sneak into Jerusalem in another area, in hopes of reaching Al Aqsa. Prayers performed at the shrine are considered more powerful than worship in another mosque.
Palestinians have long complained that Israel is violating their right to freedom of worship by restricting access to a major shrine. "It's a crime against us all year long, whether during Ramadan or any other month," said Abu Fadi.
Israel says it imposes the restrictions to prevent possible attacks by Palestinian militants. Ramadan is a time of heightened religious fervor which security officials fear could increase the motivation for carrying out attacks.
In Gaza, the head of the Hamas government, Ismail Haniyeh, said during a mosque sermon that 40,000 unemployed laborers would be paid $100 each during Ramadan.
Poverty in Gaza has deepened further since Hamas seized control of Gaza by force and Israel severely restricted the movement of cargo and people through Gaza crossings.