JERUSALEM (AP) — Tens of thousands of Muslims demonstrated Friday across the Middle East in support of the Palestinians and against Israeli airstrikes pounding Gaza, underscoring the risk of a wider regional conflict erupting as Israel prepares for a possible ground invasion in the coastal strip.
From Amman, Jordan, to Yemen’s capital of Sanaa, Muslims poured out onto the streets after weekly Friday prayers, angered by the Israeli strikes in a war that began after the militant group Hamas launched an unprecedented surprise attack on Israel last Saturday.
At Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Israeli police had been permitting only older men, women and children to enter the sprawling hilltop compound for prayers, trying to limit the potential for violence as tens of thousands attend on a typical Friday.
An Associated Press reporter watched police allow just a Palestinian teenage girl and her mother into the compound out of 20 worshippers who tried to get in, some of them even over the age of 50. Young Palestinian men who were refused entry gathered at the steps near Lion’s Gate, their eyes downcast, until police shouted at them and shepherded them out of the Old City altogether.
“We can’t live, we can’t breathe, they are killing everything that is good within us,” said Ahmad Barbour, a 57-year-old cleaner in a clean white thobe, seething after police blocked him from entering for prayers.
“Everything that is forbidden to us is allowed to them,” he added, referring to Israelis.
The mosque sits in a hilltop compound sacred to both Jews and Muslims, and conflicting claims over it have spilled into violence before. Al-Aqsa is the third-holiest site in Islam and stands in a spot known to Jews as the Temple Mount, which is the holiest site in Judaism.
Police later fired tear gas in the Old City and east Jerusalem. The Palestinian Red Crescent said its medics treated six wounded people, with at least one beaten up by officers.
In Beirut, thousands of Hezbollah supporters waved Lebanese, Palestinian and Hezbollah flags, chanting slogans supporting Gaza and calling “death to Israel.” The Iranian-backed militant group in neighboring Lebanon has launched attacks since the Hamas assault, but largely hasn’t entered the war.
However, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general warned that it will be “on the lookout” for the U.S. and British naval vessels heading to the Mediterranean Sea. U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, have repeatedly warned Iran and the militias it backs in the Mideast to stay out of the conflict.
“Your battleships do not interest us, nor do your statements frighten us,” Naim Kassim said at a rally in a southern suburb of Beirut. “We as Hezbollah … follow the steps of the enemy and have full preparedness. And when the time is right to take action, we will do so.”
In Baghdad, tens of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square in the center of Iraq’s capital for protests called by the influential Shiite cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
“May this demonstration … terrify the great evil, America, which supports Zionist terrorism against our loved ones in Palestine,” al-Sadr said in an online statement.
Across Iran, a supporter of Hamas and Israel’s regional archenemy, demonstrators protested. In Tehran, the country’s capital, they burned Israeli and Ameircan flags, chanting: “Death to Israel,” “Death to America,” “Israel will be doomed,” and “Palestine will be the conqueror.”
“The Palestinian people are fed up, now your idea is to destroy Gaza, the houses of the people,” Iran’s hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi said in a speech in the country’s southern Fars province. “The people of the world and Palestine will cause trouble for you.”
In Yemen’s Sanaa, held by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels still at war with a Saudi-led coalition, live television footage showed demonstrators crowding streets and waving Yemeni and Palestinian flags. The rebels’ slogan long has been: “God is the greatest; death to America; death to Israel; curse of the Jews; victory to Islam.”
After prayers in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, some worshippers stepped on American and Israeli flags, in a sign of disrespect. Protests there broke up peacefully, though other larger ones were expected later in the day.
“International media and international courts turn a blind eye to the injustices with the Palestinians. But they only notice the actions that the Palestinians take to defend themselves,” said Faheem Ahmed, a worshipper in Karachi. “They call it terrorism. Today, on Friday, we beseech Allah to help and raise Palestine and destroy Israel.”
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