JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel will allow women, children and men over 40 from the West Bank to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Friday in an apparent bid to help calm tensions during the holy month of Ramadan.
The government said in a statement that it could further relax restrictions if things stay quiet. The use of incentives around the flashpoint shrine, built on a hilltop compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount, comes a year after flare-ups led to the Israel-Gaza war in May.
This year, the government has been on high alert after three attacks by Palestinians in Israel in recent weeks killed 11 Israelis. The attacks raised questions about whether the new rules would be canceled, but Israel’s new coalition government has sought to avoid a repeat of last year’s violence with a series of incentives.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz said he would consider further easing restrictions next week if things remain calm.
“Along with the civilian steps we are taking starting this week toward Ramadan, which we will expand if there is security stability, we will continue to do whatever it takes to give people a normal life and to protect Israeli citizens from terrorism,” said Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
Under the new rules by the ministry’s liaison to the Palestinians, Palestinian women from the occupied West Bank will be allowed to enter Israel without a permit for Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Palestinian men over age 50 and under age 12 will be allowed to enter for prayers. Men between the ages of 40 and 49 with a permit also will be allowed in. Thousands of Palestinians with close relatives in Israel will also be given permits to visit them between Sunday and Thursday, according to the liaison.
The rules will apply for the next week and security officials will meet again to consider expanding them further.
Israel announced the rules a few hours after police arrested eight Palestinians accused of throwing rocks and other objects at officers outside the Damascus Gate to Jerusalem’s Old City. There have been other scuffles nearby.
Last year, clashes between police and protesters in and around the Old City helped spark the Gaza war.
Israeli police are on high alert after the three deadly attacks by Palestinians in Israel in recent weeks. An Israeli raid on a refugee camp in the occupied West Bank last week in search of a gunman’s suspected accomplices set off a gun battle in which two Palestinians were killed and 15 were wounded. On Saturday, Israeli police said its officers killed three Palestinian militants who were involved in recent attacks on Israeli forces and were planning another.
Also last week, the government announced $56 million in emergency funding for more police officers and equipment.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, along with its holy sites to the three monotheistic faiths, in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed it in a move unrecognized by most of the international community. The Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state that would include the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel considers the entire city its united capital.