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Israeli settlers enter Al-Aqsa compound despite Covid-19 lockdown

Provocative move taken when most Palestinians in Israel and East Jerusalem are restricted from travelling to holy site
Israeli far-right activists have repeatedly pushed for an increased Jewish presence at Al-Aqsa mosque compound (Screengrab)

Dozens of Israeli settlers entered Al-Aqsa compound on Tuesday in occupied East Jerusalem, despite restrictions of movement Israel is enforcing as part of a third Covid-19 lockdown.

Settlers toured the Al-Aqsa compound accompanied by Israeli police, entering from the Moroccan Gate near the Western Wall and leaving from the al-Silsila Gate.

Yet Israelis are ostensibly supposed to stray no more than 1,000 metres from their homes due to the lockdown imposed on Monday.

Around 4,000 Jewish Israelis live in Jerusalem's Old City, however it is commonly settlers from the occupied West Bank that occassionally tour the Al-Aqsa compound, to the displeasure of Palestinian and Jordanian authorities running the site.

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According to local media, Issam Nagiub, a guard working for the Al-Awqaf, an Islamic trust that administers the site, was arrested at the same time by Israeli military police. It was not immediately clear why he was arrested.

Recently, Palestinians' entry to the Al-Aqsa compound has been restricted due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Early in December, Israeli authorities installed loudspeakers around the site to announce guidelines in Hebrew and Arabic to Palestinian worshippers, asking them to stick to social distancing.

The compound was closed all together in March for 69 days, when the pandemic hit the city, reopening on 31 May.

Israeli settlers regularly enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and tour around the Dome of the Rock, a shrine built in the 7th century by the Syrian Umayyad Empire.

Despite the status quo agreed by Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian authorities, which dictates that Jewish prayer on the site is forbidden, settlers often pray there. Jews believe the Al-Aqsa compound is the site of the Second Jewish Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in the 1st century.

Israeli far-right activists have repeatedly pushed for an increased Jewish presence at the site, with some calling for the construction of a Third Jewish Temple and the destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is one of the holiest sites in Islam. It was also Islam's first Qibla, the direction towards which Muslims must turn to pray, before that was changed to Mecca.

Covid-19 in Israel

On Monday, Israel entered its third lockdown, as cases rise and fears increase over a particularly infectious strain originating in the UK.

Though schools remain open, commercial activities have been shut and entry of foreigners to the country severely limited.

Israel has reported more than 400,000 Covid-19 cases and 3,256 deaths since the pandemic hit the country in March.

Netanyahu received a Covid-19 vaccine jab last week, kicking off a national rollout in the coming days.

But the massive vaccination campaign, said to be the biggest in Israel's history and titled "Give a Shoulder", will not include millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, despite a recent sharp rise in cases and deaths.