Palestinians hope for a calm Ramadan in Jerusalem amid tensions


JERUSALEM, March 31 (Reuters) - With gallons of soap, ornate lanterns and fresh paint, Palestinian Muslims are sprucing up Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa compound in the week leading up to Ramadan, hoping that this year the holy month will be peaceful despite political tensions.

Old and young volunteers arrived from Israel, the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem to prepare Islam's third holiest site ahead of Ramadan's expected start on Saturday.

Last year saw nightly clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police and settlers during the fasting month. Threats of Palestinian displacement in East Jerusalem, police raids at Al-Aqsa mosque compound and a ban on evening gatherings at Damascus Gate led in part to an 11-day war between Israel and Gaza militants that killed more than 250 Palestinians in Gaza and 13 people in Israel.

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"God willing Ramadan will be peaceful and better than last year, without any problems," said Fatima Diab, a resident of Jerusalem's Old City.

A Palestinian gunman killed five people in a Tel Aviv suburb on Tuesday, the latest in a string of fatal attacks that has stoked fears of wider escalation.

Palestinians have been reporting a rise in settler violence across the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in a 1967 war.

"Jerusalem is experiencing a difficult political situation given the constant friction with the occupation and with the settlers," said Amar Seder, a Palestinian resident of the Old City.

He said he hopes the decorations can bring people joy during this time.

In a historic summit with Israeli President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday, Jordan's King Abdullah called for calm. The royal Hashemite family has custodianship of Muslim and Christian holy sites in the eastern part of the city, an area controlled by Jordanian forces from 1949 to 1967.

After two years of COVID-19 restrictions, worshippers are expecting easier access to the holy site this year.

"Every year we clean the courtyards, the graves, the paths and the schools," said Ibrahim Ayash, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, as volunteers behind him applied anti-slip strips on stairs. "We prepare the mosque ahead of Ramadan to welcome visitors and worshippers to Al-Aqsa."

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Writing by Henriette Chacar; Editing by Alexandra Hudson

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